Gospel-Dominated Preaching

This series of articles is adapted from a recent lecture presented at Concordia Theological Seminary entitled How Did Luther Preach?: A Plea for Gospel-Dominated Preaching.

My contention is that Martin Luther’s preaching of imperatives in Scripture is vastly underrated. Contrary to popular opinion, Luther frequently used the pulpit to tell people what to do, not merely to tell them what Christ had done (although he certainly did that frequently and faithfully). In other words, Luther preached the law.

After investigating Luther’s practice of preaching the law in his pulpit, what can we surmise in conclusion from the Reformer’s practices?

 

Gospel-Dominated Preaching

In a noble effort to avoid works-righteousness and maximize the gospel, too many contemporary sermons feature castrated imperatives, heavily bandaged in a host of gospel caveats. Such impotent imperatives are largely absent from Luther’s preaching. While Luther did articulate gospel indicatives, he apparently saw no need to follow every proclamation of law with a gospel caveat.

Although Luther’s preaching was not consistently gospel-centered the way the term is often employed in popular literature today, it was gospel-dominated even when it featured a preponderance of law. In other words, even when Luther’s exposition did not center on the gospel, it remained dominated by it. Edward Engelbrecht explains the concept of gospel-dominance as characteristic of Luther’s preaching:

By dominance of the Gospel, I do not mean simply that a message contains more Gospel than Law. Some preachers might adopt that as a goal but it is not always what we see in the Scriptures, Luther’s sermons, or the messages of other faithful teachers. The proclamation of the Law often takes more space, depending on the state of the hearers. . . . By dominance, I mean that the proclamation of the Law serves the purpose of the Gospel: our forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ alone. This requires sensitivity to the hearers, addressing their sins appropriately with the Law so that the Gospel may do its life-giving work. It also means proclaiming the Gospel vigorously as our only hope and comfort.[1]

An isolated glance at individual sermons may paint Luther as sometimes Antinomian and other times legalistic. But Luther is no homiletical schizophrenic. His strategy was to ground his people in the beauty of Christ’s gospel, but that foundation was not built in a single sermon. Even when Luther preached the law unabashedly, he still allowed his imperatives to be dominated by the gospel.

In his fourth Invocavit sermon, Luther brilliantly rejected the radical reformers’ tendencies to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. His sarcastic rebuke is still relevant today:

We must, therefore, be on our guard, for the devil, through his apostles, is after us with all his craft and cunning. Now, although it is true and no one can deny that the images are evil because they are abused, nevertheless we must not on that account reject them, nor condemn anything because it is abused. This would result in utter confusion. God has commanded us in Deut. 4 not to lift up our eyes to the sun, etc., that we may not worship them, for they are created to serve all nations. But there are many people who worship the sun and the stars. Therefore we propose to rush in and pull the sun and stars from the skies. No, we had better let it be. Again, wine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool out of him; so we kill all the women and pour out all the wine. Again, gold and silver cause much evil, so we condemn them. Indeed, if we want to drive away our worst enemy, the one who does us the most harm, we shall have to kill ourselves, for we have no greater enemy than our own heart.[2]

Christian history is replete with preachers who have damaged the pulpit with the Christ-denying evils of moralism and legalism. It is true that preachers can abuse the imperatives of Scripture, turning Christianity into a legalistic system of salvation by works. However, Martin Luther was not such a preacher, nor are the countless others who follow in his tradition. The recurring tendency to cure moralism in the pulpit by minimizing the law is not a legitimate remedy. Instead, let us embrace Luther’s example of gospel-dominated preaching.

[1]Edward A. Engelbrecht, Friends of the Law: Luther’s Use of the Law for Christian Life (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), 244-45.

[2]Luther, LW, 51: 85.

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Church Music Should Be Relevant

Worship Wars is Pastor Hopson’s current teaching series on Wednesday nights at 6:30 at Poquoson Baptist Church. Join us to learn more about worship and music from a Christian worldview. Click here to listen to the recordings.

The following is part 23 in a series of articles based on the Worship Wars series.

Important Note: Everything you read below is based on key foundational truths established in previous lessons. If anything concerns or confuses you, go back and read the other articles in this series or listen to the recordings.

Church Music Should Be Relevant

Finally, church music should be relevant. In other words, music should do everything we’ve said above through the unique cultural lens of those singing. By God’s grace I’ve been able to sing songs with Christians in many different contexts. Jesus can be glorified by the traditional hymns sung in rural Ohio, the Christ-centered hip hop in the inner-city of Atlanta, the tattooed indie rock in Louisville’s Highlands district, the excited dancing in the slums of Port au Prince, and everything in between. We’re foolish and arrogant to assume that faithful musical style is that which looks like our style.

So what principles should guide us? First, we should consider the culture around us. What’s our mission field look like? What musical styles do they sing? It would make little sense to cultivate a hip hop style in the city of Poquoson, but that style fits very well at The Midtown Bridge Church in urban Atlanta. A pipe organ and choir robes might make sense when targeting traditional, educated Americans or Brits, but it would be far less effective in sub-Saharan Africa. So if we’re trying to be relevant, we should look at the music and culture of the world around us.

Some might object that our church gatherings are not for the lost, but for Christians. This much is true. But in his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul clearly expects that unbelievers may enter our church gatherings, something that should affect the way the Corinthians use their supernatural gifts. He puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25:

Even so, if unbelievers or people who don’t understand these things come into your church meeting and hear everyone speaking in an unknown language, they will think you are crazy. But if all of you are prophesying, and unbelievers or people who don’t understand these things come into your meeting, they will be convicted of sin and judged by what you say. As they listen, their secret thoughts will be exposed, and they will fall to their knees and worship God, declaring, “God is truly here among you.”

If the presence of unbelievers in our church gatherings should have affected the way the early church thought about supernatural gifts, shouldn’t it affect the way we think about music? Shouldn’t we strive to structure our gatherings in such a way that they pose as little a stumbling block as possible? We know the gospel will cause unbelievers to stumble. Do we really need them to stumble over anything else on their way to the biggest stumbling block of all?

So what does this mean practically? I believe our worship gatherings, including the music we sing, should not be seeker-centered, but seeker-sensible. In other words, we shouldn’t structure everything we do around the unbeliever, but we should be sensible about it by minimizing non-essential distractions. Often this is as simple as refreshing dated decor and singing more modern styles of music. But in all of this we must never compromise the gospel that we’re called to proclaim.

But there’s one more principle that should guide us in our consideration of relevance. We must remember that relevance is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. In other words, the pursuit of relevance is never primary. Our primary goal is to glorify God in Christ with humble expressions of sacrificial delight, not to be relevant. Os Guinness warned us well: “By our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant.”[i]

© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017

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Image Credit: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2016/05/5-signs-worship-wars-are-over.html

 

[i] As quoted in Kauflin, 192-93.

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Church Music Should be Undistracting

Worship Wars is Pastor Hopson’s current teaching series on Wednesday nights at 6:30 at Poquoson Baptist Church. Join us to learn more about worship and music from a Christian worldview. Click here to listen to the recordings.

The following is part 22 in a series of articles based on the Worship Wars series.

Important Note: Everything you read below is based on key foundational truths established in previous lessons. If anything concerns or confuses you, go back and read the other articles in this series or listen to the recordings.

Church Music Should Be Skilled

Fourth, to expand our thoughts on skill a little wider, church music should be undistracting. In other words, church music should not distract from the point of church music, which is to worship God. Imagine you’ve been given the opportunity of a lifetime to visit the Grand Canyon. There you are confronted with an incredible vista unlike anything you’ve ever seen in your life. But instead of soaking in the glory in front of you, you become fascinated with the signs and the railings. You’ve missed the point. And yet that’s what many of us are tempted to do with church music. We’re tempted to get so infatuated with lesser things, like the music itself, that we forget to become enamored with the God we’re supposed to be singing about.

The average church attender suffers from spiritual attentional deficit disorder; we’re readily tempted to spiritual distraction. One of our goals in the selection and execution of church music should be to minimize those distractions. And those distractions are legion.

Music that is more memorable than its lyrics can be distracting. Instead of focusing on the God we’re meant to be worshiping, we can become overly concerned with tune. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sing good music, but it does mean we shouldn’t sing good music with bad lyrics. Our criteria for church music should be more in-depth than just picking the songs with great tunes.

Music that doesn’t match its lyrics can be distracting. Joyful lyrics should be accompanied by joyful tunes, and somber lyrics should be paired with somber tunes. Unfortunately, many famous hymns were set to music years later by somebody else. For example, Fanny Crosby’s hymn Rescue the Perishing highlights our call to take the gospel to those who are dying apart from Christ. It’s a somber song that should serve as a wake-up call to Christians everywhere. But the tune, composed by W. Howard Doane, doesn’t match the sober tone of the song in the least. When this happens the tune distracts from the song’s desired effect.

Music that can’t be played with skill can be distracting. I still remember the well-meaning guitar player who occasionally performed “special music” at my home church. Inevitably at some point in his song he would miss a beat or play the wrong chord and have to start his song over. A lack of skill in a public setting like this can actually serve to distract from our purpose.

Music that excessively showcases skill can distract. Some churches have such spectacular musicians that the temptation can be to highlight and showcase individual skill. But if you leave the service more impressed with a killer guitar riff than the God that you’re here to worship you’ve lost your focus.

Music with poorly chose lyrics distracts. Some Christian bands and musicians have begun using profanity in their songs in order to provocatively make a point. But your feelings on language aside, such a tactic actually distracts from the main point of the song. But you don’t have to use a four-letter-word to distract with poorly chosen lyrics. In John Mark McMillan’s song How He Loves, the song talks about heaven meeting earth “like a sloppy wet kiss.” Thankfully, David Crowder recognized the distracting nature of that line and changed it to “an unforeseen kiss” in his version that popularized the song.

The bottom line is simple. In church music, we should strive to focus on what matters most by avoiding anything that distracts us from the glory of God in Christ.

 

© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017

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Image Credit: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2016/05/5-signs-worship-wars-are-over.html

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Preach the Law Boldly

This series of articles is adapted from my recent lecture presented at Concordia Theological Seminary entitled How Did Luther Preach?: A Plea for Gospel-Dominated Preaching.

My contention is that Martin Luther’s preaching of imperatives in Scripture is vastly underrated. Contrary to popular opinion, Luther frequently used the pulpit to tell people what to do, not merely to tell them what Christ had done (although he certainly did that frequently and faithfully). In other words, Luther preached the law.

 

We’ve already discussed several points about Luther’s preaching, but what else can we learn about his use of the law?

Preach the Law Boldly

One of the central claims of redemptive-historical preaching is the plea for gospel exceptionalism. The Christian sermon is not Christian if the unique and exceptional claims of the gospel remain implicit. In other words, the Christian sermon must be distinctively different from the sermon preached in a synagogue, a mosque, or a kingdom hall. Every sermon must articulate clearly and carefully the central, unique claims of Christianity. Few were more passionate about Christian doctrine than Luther. Few held the gospel in higher esteem than he did. After all, how many preachers or theologians today would walk away from Marburg questioning Zwingli’s salvation the way Luther did? Nevertheless, despite this indomitable passion for the priority of the gospel, he apparently did not find it necessary to explicate the uniqueness of the Christian gospel in every individual sermon.

In his 1545 sermon on Hebrews 13:4, he carefully and clearly presented a Christian theology of marriage. None should disregard holy matrimony, not the marriage-forbidding legalists on the right or the sexually licentious on the left. The legalists should abandon their legalism and pursue marriage. The licentious should repent. Those who are faithfully married must labor to remain faithful, while properly raising the children from that union. Yet Luther did not hold a gospel-less view of marriage. His entire theology of marriage was resultant from and consistent with his theology of justification by faith. The gospel is not absent from this sermon, it is merely implicit. Therein lies the problem; many popular ideas of Gospel-centered preaching provide little room for theological implicitness.

Luther’s approach to gospel-centered sermons was different. My analysis found a frequent failure to articulate the gospel explicitly in every sermon. Some might contend that Luther’s gospel is too small. After all, would not a hearty view of the gospel compel the preacher to explicate its truths at every opportunity? Luther saw things differently. He preached this way, not because his gospel was too small, but because his gospel was infinitely big—so big, in fact, that it is able to do its work even when its claims are implicit. Furthermore, it was not a low view of Scripture that led Luther to preach in this way. On the contrary, he valued the Word of God so highly that he was thoroughly content to preach the text and trust God to do the work. In other words, Luther’s total confidence in the gospel enabled him to preach the law boldly.

Luther firmly believed that the Evangel was powerless until the Cacangelium—the bad news—had done its work. The law must be preached or the gospel will have no effect. Luther’s view of the gospel was so expansive that even when its truths were implied, its power remained undiminished. For Luther, the goal of the sermon was not merely to speak accurate words for God but to speak in an accurate manner. If God speaks through the languages of law and gospel, the preacher must rightly employ those languages in the pulpit.

The expositional imbalance of gospel exceptionalism finds remedy in Luther’s gospel expansiveness. For Luther, preaching the law was essential because it clarified the gospel. The preacher can preach the law boldly because faithfully and effectively preaching the law is preaching Christ. Regardless of which use of the law is employed, Christ is preached when the law is preached because Christ fulfilled the law and died for the sinner who is helpless to meet its demands. Luther made this connection in his words to Agricola in the First Antinomian Disputation:

How can one know what sin is without the law and conscience? And how will we learn what Christ is, what he did for us, if we do not know what the law is that he fulfilled for us and what sin is, for which he made satisfaction? And even if we did not require the law for ourselves, or if we could tear it out of our hearts (which is impossible), we would have to preach it for Christ’s sake, as is done and as has to be done, so that we might know what he did and what he suffered for us. For who could know what and why Christ suffered for us without knowing what sin or law is? Therefore the law must be preached wherever Christ is to be preached, even if the word “law” is not mentioned, so that the conscience is nevertheless frightened by the law when it hears that Christ had to fulfill the law for us at so great a price. Why, then, should one wish to abolish the law, which cannot be abolished, yes, which is only intensified by such an attempt? For the law terrifies me more when I hear that Christ, the Son of God, had to fulfill it for me than it would were it preached to me without the mention of Christ and of such great torment suffered by God’s Son, but were accompanied only by threats. For in the Son of God I behold the wrath of God in action, while the law of God shows it to me with words and with lesser deeds.[1]

 

Luther’s logic is clear. First, the law clarifies the gospel by highlighting the wretchedness of sin. Without clearly preaching the law to reveal man’s incompleteness, God’s provision in Christ to make man complete will lose its power. Believers and unbelievers alike must hear God’s standard preached if they would understand how drastically they fall short. Second, the law clarifies the gospel by highlighting the work of Christ. [2] Luther addressed both Christ’s obedience and his sacrifice. Lawless preaching drains Christ’s obedience to the law of its meaning. Furthermore, lawless preaching diminishes Christ’s sacrifice to pay for man’s disobedience. Third, the law clarifies the gospel by explaining the wrath of God. Luther stated, “In the Son of God I behold the wrath of God in action, while the law of God shows it to me with words and with lesser deeds.”[3] The cross illustrates the wrath of God and the law describes why that wrath is necessary.

Finally, Luther argued, “even if we did not require the law for ourselves . . . we would have to preach it for Christ’s sake.”[4] Luther’s remarks imply that Christians do “require the law” for themselves. Luther reiterated that the function of the law is not restricted to revealing man’s incompleteness to satisfy God’s standard of righteousness. The law also reveals man’s incompleteness by commanding him to change his beliefs or behaviors. In some sense, the law still binds the Christian. How does this function of the law clarify the gospel? The law clarifies the gospel by revealing how gospel people should live.

Luther preached the law to clarify the gospel. He rightly understood that without the law the good news of the gospel is not good at all. Lohse encapsulates the crux of this argument, “The law can only fulfill its God-intended function when seen in constant contrast with the gospel, just as the gospel is properly preached only in constant contrast to the law.”[5]

Preachers today should not be afraid or ashamed to preach the law of God. After all, faithfully preaching the law is one of the ways the preacher faithfully preaches Christ. Luther believed that law and gospel are the two languages with which God speaks to his people, which testify of Christ, the Eternal Word. Many homileticians have unwittingly clamped one side of God’s mouth shut while holding up a megaphone to the other. However, the preacher is free to proclaim the law in a robust manner, unlike this one-dimensional approach. If God speaks in the two languages of law and gospel, preachers must painstakingly strive for fluency in both languages.

© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017

[1]Luther, LW, 47: 113. Emphasis added.

[2]Luther considered the minimization of Christ’s saving work as the tragic failure of antinomianism: “It is apparent from this that the devil’s purpose in this fanaticism is not to remove the law but to remove Christ, the fulfiller of the law.” Luther, LW, 47: 110.

[3]Ibid., 113.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 269.

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Church Music Should Be Skilled

Worship Wars is Pastor Hopson’s current teaching series on Wednesday nights at 6:30 at Poquoson Baptist Church. Join us to learn more about worship and music from a Christian worldview. Click here to listen to the recordings.

The following is part 21 in a series of articles based on the Worship Wars series.

Important Note: Everything you read below is based on key foundational truths established in previous lessons. If anything concerns or confuses you, go back and read the other articles in this series or listen to the recordings.

Church Music Should Be Skilled

What are the important marks of music sung in the local church? First, we said that church music should be Christ-centered. Second, church music should be cross-centered. Third, church music should be skilled. Skill is not the most important ingredient of church music, but it does matter. Consider the following Scriptures:

  • Psalm 33:3“Sing a new song of praise to him; play skillfully on the harp, and sing with joy.”
  • 1 Chronicles 15:22Kenaniah, the head Levite, was chosen as the choir leader because of his skill
  • 2 Chronicles 30:21-22“So the people of Israel who were present in Jerusalem joyously celebrated the Festival of Unleavened Bread for seven days. Each day the Levites and the priests sang to the LORD, accompanied by loud instruments. Hezekiah encouraged all the Levites regarding the skill they displayed as they served the LORD.”

Skill matters to God, so it should matter to us.

As important as skill is, it is a dangerous beast. There are at least two pitfalls we could fall into when we think about skill. On the one hand, we could overemphasize skill to the point that our music is more about production and excellence than truly engaging our hearts. Reggie Kidd in his book on music puts it this way:

“In some churches the quest for ‘excellence’ is an idol, regardless of whether ‘excellence’ is defined by standards of so-called ‘classical’ culture or of ‘pop’ culture. Such ‘excellentism’ needs to be replaced with the quest to pursue the likeness of Christ crucified and him alone. As good as it gets this side of Christ’s return, we’re never going to get it completely right. There will always be a flat tenor, a broken guitar string, an overly loud organ, or a poorly placed hymn. But it’s okay. The cross means it’s covered.”[i]

God, protect us from the idolatry of “excellentism.” But before we swing the pendulum to the other extreme and embrace mediocrity, we must consider another pitfall. It’s possible to underemphasize skill to the point that it’s a hindrance to genuine worship.

In one of the churches I served the Sunday morning music selection went something like this. Our pianist would show up about 15 minutes before the main worship gathering in order to run through the songs before the service. About 5 minutes later the song leader would arrive, and ask the pianist “What are we going to sing today?” Sadly, many churches have so underemphasized skill in church music that little or no effort is ever exerted in prayerfully and carefully preparing a song service that glorifies Christ and edifies the body.

Imagine you’ve been given an original painting that’s of incredible value. Something like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or can Gogh’s The Starry Night. Now you know better than to simply thumbtack that canvas to your wall. It needs a frame. But the frame you choose really matters. If you put that painting in a cheap, shabby frame from the dollar store, what does that say about the picture? The average person would see the frame surrounding your original painting and feel certain that it wasn’t that valuable. After all, who would put anything of value in a frame like that? A frame like that wouldn’t highlight the picture’s value at all, it would diminish it. On the other hand, you could put that painting in a bejeweled, golden frame that’s hilariously gaudy. Better yet, how about a flashing neon frame that also functions as a nightlight? A frame like this wouldn’t highlight the picture’s value either, it would distract from it.

Music in the local church should function in the same way. Let our music not be like a cheap frame that diminishes the value of the God we’re singing about. And let it not be a gaudy show that distracts from Him. Rather, let us cultivate God-honoring skill without idolizing skill; what John Piper calls “undistracting excellence.” How do we move in this direction? Allen Ross suggests this in his book on worship: “There is no reason for individual churches to change everything they have been doing; but there is every reason for all congregations to evaluate everything they are doing to see how they can do it better.”[ii] Amen.

 

© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017

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Image Credit: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2016/05/5-signs-worship-wars-are-over.html

[i] As quoted in Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters, 196

[ii] As quoted in Kauflin, 157.

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Church Music Should Be Cross-Centered

Worship Wars is Pastor Hopson’s current teaching series on Wednesday nights at 6:30 at Poquoson Baptist Church. Join us to learn more about worship and music from a Christian worldview. Click here to listen to the recordings.

The following is part 20 in a series of articles based on the Worship Wars series.

Important Note: Everything you read below is based on key foundational truths established in previous lessons. If anything concerns or confuses you, go back and read the other articles in this series or listen to the recordings.


Church Music Should Be Cross-Centered

What are the important marks of music sung in the local church? First, we said that church music should be Christ-centered. Second, church music should be cross-centered. It’s great for church music to explicitly mention Jesus’ person and work, but we need to go deeper than that. We could spend a lot of time talking about Jesus’ miracles, His care for the poor and powerless, His love for children, and His good works. But none of those are the reasons Jesus came. In Mark 10:45 Jesus says “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Jesus came to die on a cross so our sins could be forgiven. Church music should highlight the work of Jesus on the cross.

Think with me about the popular children’s song Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. The first verse and chorus says this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong; they are weak, but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.” Now, if that’s all we sang and all we talked about, what impression might we give about Jesus and His love? We might give the impression that Jesus loves us because that’s His job. Or because we’re lovable. We certainly won’t say anything about what it cost for Jesus to love us. Thankfully the second verse mentions that cost: “Jesus loves me He who died heaven’s gate to open wide. He will wash away my sin, let His little child come in.” Jesus’ death on the cross is the foundation and the focal point of God’s love for us. So church music should highlight the work of Jesus on the cross.

Again, you might feel that this should be considered an essential mark of church music, not just an important one. The truth is there are wonderful, true, biblical, Christian, clear, congregational songs that are worth singing even though they don’t explicitly mention Jesus’ death on the cross. Here’s an example:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;

holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

 

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,

casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;

cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,

who wert and art and evermore shalt be.

 

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,

though the eye made blind by sin thy glory may not see,

only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,

perfect in power, in love, and purity.

 

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea;

holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

What does this song say about the cross? Nothing. Is this song worth singing? Absolutely. But we need to be careful in our song selection to highlight the cross of Christ. Bob Kauflin puts it this way: “The gospel is not merely one of many possible themes we can touch on as we worship God. It is the central and foundational theme. All our worship originates and is brought into focus at the cross of Jesus Christ.”[i] The cross isn’t like one of the stores that you can visit in the mall. It’s the door by which you’re able to enter the mall in the first place. And it’s the ground on which you stand no matter what store you enter.

I want to spend a little longer here because this is incredibly important. A lot of songs we sing talk about God’s love and mercy for us. But they don’t tell us where God’s love and mercy is most visible: in the cross of Christ. Again, Kauflin is helpful here: “It’s not enough to sing songs about God’s love that produce warm feelings in our hearts. We need to glory in the reality of Jesus Christ, beaten and bruised for our transgressions, giving up his life in our place on the cross. There will never be a greater proof or demonstration of God’s love. If we help people focus on what God did two thousand years ago rather than twenty minutes ago, they’ll consistently find their hearts ravished by his amazing love.”[ii]

It’s interesting that even in heaven we’re still singing about the cross. We’re not singing about mansions over the hilltop, rolls called up yonder, streets of gold or the sweet by and by. We’re singing about the cross! Look at Revelation 5:8-10:

The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Again and again and again the music we sing in our church gatherings should highlight what Jesus did on the cross.

 

© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017

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Image Credit: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2016/05/5-signs-worship-wars-are-over.html

[i] Kauflin, Worship Matters, 72.

[ii] Ibid., 75-76.

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Church Music Should Be Christ-Centered

Worship Wars is Pastor Hopson’s current teaching series on Wednesday nights at 6:30 at Poquoson Baptist Church. Join us to learn more about worship and music from a Christian worldview. Click here to listen to the recordings.

The following is part 19 in a series of articles based on the Worship Wars series.

Important Note: Everything you read below is based on key foundational truths established in previous lessons. If anything concerns or confuses you, go back and read the other articles in this series or listen to the recordings.


What Church Music Should Be

In the last few articles we discussed the details that should be true of music in the local church. We’ve divided these details into two categories: those details that are essential for church music and those that are important for church music. We discussed what church music must be—essential details that must be true of every song we sing—but now we must discuss what church music should be—those important details that should be true of most of the songs we sing. You and I may disagree over which details are primary and which are secondary, but I hope you’ll agree that each and all of them should be pursued in church music.

Church Music Should Be Christ-Centered

First, church music should be Christ-centered. In other words, church music should highlight the person and work of Christ. Early in His ministry Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for failing to rightly understand the Scripture. In John 5:39 He said this: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me.” In other words, generic spirituality or Bible knowledge is not enough if our attention and our affections are not directed to Jesus.

Or consider what Jesus said about the psalms in Luke 24:44. He said this to His disciples: “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Did you catch that? Jesus said that even the Psalms are meant to point to Him! The best songs should explicitly mention who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.

Perhaps you’re surprised that this is mentioned as a should and not a must, an important mark of church music but not an essential one. I wrestled with this one, but ultimately I think there are wonderful, true, biblical, Christian, clear, congregational songs that are worth singing even though they don’t explicitly mention Jesus. Here’s an example:

Amazing grace (how sweet the sound) that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

 

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved;

how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!

 

Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come:

’tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

 

The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures;

he will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.

 

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease:

I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.

 

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine;

but God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.

 

What does this song explicitly tell us about the person or work of Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity? Nothing. Now we know that the amazing grace of God is most clearly displayed in the person of Jesus and His work on the cross, but does the song tell us that? No. Hear me, I am not suggesting we don’t sing this song. But I am suggesting that when we do we should make extra effort to explicitly direct our affections to Jesus through Scripture, words shared by the song leader, or by the other songs we sing.

 

© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017

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Image Credit: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2016/05/5-signs-worship-wars-are-over.html

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Preach the Law Intentionally

This series of articles is adapted from my recent lecture presented at Concordia Theological Seminary entitled How Did Luther Preach?: A Plea for Gospel-Dominated Preaching.

My contention is that Martin Luther’s preaching of imperatives in Scripture is vastly underrated. Contrary to popular opinion, Luther frequently used the pulpit to tell people what to do, not merely to tell them what Christ had done (although he certainly did that frequently and faithfully). In other words, Luther preached the law.

We’ve already discussed several points about Luther’s preaching, but what else can we learn about his use of the law?

Preach the Law Intentionally

Luther preached the law intentionally to his congregation. During the antinomian controversy, he faced recurring accusations of neglecting the law, which he steadfastly denied. In his 1539 thesis Against the Antinomians, he responded by highlighting the intentionality with which he proclaimed the Ten Commandments in Wittenberg:

“It is most surprising to me that anyone can claim that I reject the law or the Ten Commandments, since there is available, in more than one edition, my exposition of the Ten Commandments, which furthermore are daily preached and practiced in our churches. . . . Furthermore, the commandments are sung in two versions, as well as painted, printed, carved, and recited by the children morning, noon, and night.”  
 

Historical evidence supports Luther’s defense that the commandments were vital to the Wittenberg congregation. He preached through the Ten Commandments three times in 1528 alone. On November 29 that year, he explained the importance of these sermons:

“It has hitherto been our custom to teach the elements and fundamentals of Christian knowledge and life four times each year and we have therefore arranged to preach on these things for two weeks in each quarter, four days a week at two o’clock in the afternoon. Because these matters are highly necessary, I faithfully admonish you to assemble at the designated time with your families. Do not allow yourself to be kept away by your work or trade and do not complain that you will suffer loss if for once you interrupt your work for an hour. Remember how much freedom the gospel has given to you, so that now you are not obliged to observe innumerable holy days and can pursue your work.”

It is noteworthy to consider how Luther connected the importance of preaching the law intentionally with the reality of the gospel. Christ’s atoning work does not free his people from obedience the law; it frees them for obedience to the law. Elsewhere he stated, “The law should be interpreted and preached, in order both that love for every man may rightly proceed from a pure heart for God’s sake and that the conscience may stand before the world.”

Luther’s practical understanding of the law permeated his intentional exposition of the Ten Commandments in 1528. First, Luther believed the preacher should explain the law. Every sermon began with a clear explanation of the law. The faithful preacher must never assume that a congregation already understands the law of God; he should carefully explain what God expects of all people. Second, Luther believed the preacher should apply the law. His sermons on the Decalogue contained practical application for his people. Luther refused to speak in mere generalities, but sought to drive the law into the everyday lives of his hearers. Third, Luther believed the people of God should obey the law. He undoubtedly believed that the law instructed the Christian how to live his life. Elsewhere he stated, “You must use the Ten Commandments to teach people how they must live in this life.”

At the outset of the Reformation, the Ten Commandments were essential tools in the Christian education of children and adults alike. Sadly, a similar emphasis on the law of God is absent in many churches today. Perhaps many preachers have so lost confidence in the gospel that they now avoid the law. Presbyterian pastor Kevin DeYoung expressed similar concerns in a popular sermon: “The world looks at us and the world is very concerned that you and I might be homophobic. I think God is much more concerned that you and I might be nomophobic—afraid of the law.” Luther’s intentional handling of the law should encourage today’s preacher to develop a deliberate plan to proclaim the law from his own pulpit.
© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017

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Church Music Must Be Christian

Worship Wars is Pastor Hopson’s current teaching series on Wednesday nights at 6:30 at Poquoson Baptist Church. Join us to learn more about worship and music from a Christian worldview. Click here to listen to the recordings.

The following is part 18 in a series of articles based on the Worship Wars series.

Important Note: Everything you read below is based on key foundational truths established in previous lessons. If anything concerns or confuses you, go back and read the other articles in this series or listen to the recordings.


Church Music Must Be Christian

This seems like a no-brainer, so what does this even mean? By this I mean that our music should flow from a uniquely Christian worldview. Some of the key elements of a Christian worldview include beliefs like these:

  • God exists as a three-personal Being who is desires to be known and worshiped by His creation.
  • Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation, made in His image.
  • Humanity is fallen, sinfully broken and dead apart from Christ.
  • Salvation is available exclusively through the death of Christ on the cross.
  • We respond to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection by grace through faith.
  • If we respond in faith, we can be assured of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Believe it or not, it is possible to sing a song that is both true and biblical and yet not Christian. Peter Seeger’s song Turn Turn Turn popularized by The Byrds is a perfect example of this:

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

 

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to ever purpose, under heaven

 

A time to build up, a time to break down

A time to dance, a time to mourn

A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

 

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to ever purpose, under heaven

 

A time of love, a time of hate

A time of war, a time of peace

A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

 

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to ever purpose, under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time for love, a time for hate

A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late

 

If you know your Bible, you know that Seeger’s song is almost a direct quote from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. In fact, Seeger’s song has way more Bible in it than a lot of Christian songs—only seven words in the entire song are not directly quoted from Scripture. Nevertheless, this song is not a Christian song. We know this because Seeger has told us what he believes about God, and it totally contradicts what the Bible teaches. Seeger said: “I used to say I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. I’m not an atheist. I think God is in everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”[i]

The problem with Seeger’s song is that he’s using the Scriptures contrary to their intent. He’s ripping them from their context in Ecclesiastes about the folly of living without fear of God and turning them into a vague song about God’s presence in everything. The songs we sing shouldn’t merely be true and biblical, but Christian.

Of course, this is important to remember whenever we’re singing themes from the Old Testament. Remember what Jesus said in Luke 24:44? He’s talking to His disciples and He reminds them: “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Did you catch that? Jesus said that even the Psalms are meant to point to Him!

Listen to how Isaac Watts applied this principle when writing songs based on the Psalms:

“Where the Psalmist…speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I have added the merits of a Savior. Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where he promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life eternal, which are brought to light by the Gospel, and promised in the New Testament. And I am fully satisfied, that more honor is done to our blessed Savior by speaking his name, his graces, his actions, in his own language according to the brighter discoveries he hath now made, than by going back again to the Jewish forms of worship, and the language of types and figures.”[ii]

Watts’ point is clear. It is not enough for church music to be true and biblical. It must be Christian.

I want to digress for just a moment and talk about a type of music that I experienced in my home church, and perhaps has in the past been a part of the music at PBC. Every year around Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans’ Day we would sing patriotic songs in our church gatherings. As a kid, I didn’t think much of it. I had never experienced anything different. But early in my ministry while serving in another church I attended one of these patriotic services and it hit me. We’ve sung America the Beautiful, My Country Tis of Thee, God Bless America, and The Star Spangled Banner. But none of these songs have anything to do with Jesus! Now, please, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m a patriotic American. Pick a patriotic song and I can probably sing most of the verses from memory. These are wonderful songs that deserve to be played and sung. But there’s a threefold danger in replacing or mingling Christian songs with patriotic songs.

First, Jesus is better than America! When I gather with my church family, I want to sing about the One who saved me! America’s a great place, but it’s greatness is nothing compared to the greatness of Jesus! Second, the church is bigger than America! What message are we sending to our brothers and sisters in other countries when we sing “God Bless America”? Are we willing to sing “God Bless Haiti” or “God Bless Australia”? Why not? Are we suggesting that only our country deserves this blessing? Third and finally, heaven lasts longer than America! Philippians 3:20 is clear: “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The day will come when America will be no more. But Christ and His Kingdom will last forever! Church music must be Christian.

 

© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017

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Image Credit: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2016/05/5-signs-worship-wars-are-over.html

[i] As quoted in Wikipedia article on Pete Seeger

[ii] As quoted in Watts, 102.

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Wonder Woman and the Hero We Don’t Deserve

There are few lines that lead me to geek out quite as quickly as Lieutenant James Gordon’s closing monologue about Batman in the 2008 blockbuster film The Dark Knight:

 

“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”

As I watched the marvelous depiction of Wonder Woman on the silver screen, I was surprised to hear a different take on the heroes we deserve.

Warning: minor spoilers to follow

Even as a child, Princess Diana of Themyscira was told that the world did not deserve her. And yet when she learned the world was in trouble, she chose to leave a lush island paradise to save the world of men.

As the plot unfolds we see how spectacular Wonder Woman really is. Her brute strength was quite a sight to behold, but  Diana’s goodness was even more powerful. We’ve seen tough superheroes before, but Wonder Woman is more. She’s tough and tender. She doesn’t run into a monsoon of ammunition for personal glory, but to protect the weak and vulnerable. She does it for love.

With a heroine like this, it’s no surprise that near the story’s end Wonder Woman is reminded that the world did not deserve her. And after she realizes that the brokenness of humanity isn’t a problem outside of us, but a problem inside of us she begins to believe it. Maybe the world of men doesn’t deserve her after all.

As much as I love that closing monologue in The Dark Knight (which incidentally may be the last truly great DC film before Wonder Woman), I’m inclined to believe that the voices in Diana’s life are right and Lt. Gordon is wrong. The truth is, we don’t deserve these heroes.

What we deserve is exactly what we have. A broken world filled with broken people doing broken things. What we deserve is what we ask for with every decision to live for ourselves, to live in fear, to live for the glory of self. You could say every moment of goodness that we enjoy in this life is a moment that’s better than what we deserve.

In the end Wonder Woman is the hero we need, but not the one we deserve. Because she learns it’s not really about what we deserve. It’s about what we believe. It’s about the simple message that concludes the film: “it is only love that can truly save the world.”

And the good news is that love has. And love will. The truth is that the toughness and tenderness of Wonder Woman is just a faint echo of a far greater Hero. A Hero we could never deserve. A Hero we desperately need.

“This is real love–not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” — 1 John 4:10 (NLT)

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