Posts Tagged 'Law'

A Look at Liturgy: The Decalogue

The Decalogue

Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at some characteristic elements of the Reformed worship service. Today’s post brings us to perhaps the most distinctive feature of Dutch Reformed liturgy: the reading of the Ten Commandments (decalogue, “ten words”) in the service.

In theory, there is a basic theological rationale for the use of the decalogue in worship: “it testifies to the Calvinist respect for the unity of the covenant” (Report of Liturgical Committee, Psalter Hymnal Supplement 100)—though even Calvinists do not always agree on the nature of the covenant. In practice, however, this justification leaves some questions unanswered. For instance, why do the Ten Commandments not appear in the worship of other Protestant churches that uphold the unity of the covenant of grace?

The answer to this question is mostly one of history and tradition. It was John Calvin who “planted the decalogue in the liturgy” without leaving much explanation why, and it had come to be a fixture in Dutch Reformed worship by the time of Abraham Kuyper in the 19th century. “By that time,” the Liturgical Committee comments, “the law seemed liturgically inexpendable, and liturgically undefined.”

In West Sayville’s liturgy the Ten Commandments fall under the heading of “God’s Will for Our Lives,” and occasionally they are replaced in the worship service with another Scripture reading that urges us onward in “the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33, Q&A 88). Following the reading of the decalogue or an alternate passage, our pastor offers a prayer of confession and reads another text as the “Assurance of Pardon,” and then the congregation sings a penitential psalm or hymn. Presented as God’s will for his people, the reading of the decalogue prompts us to confess how drastically we fall short of its perfection, but also to recognize Christ’s fulfillment of the law and go forth in grateful obedience to him.

This use of the Ten Commandments in worship, which I have to assume is fairly typical in United Reformed churches, reflects all three of the functions of the law listed in the Liturgical Committee’s report:

  1. “It could serve as a catalyst to confession.…It is the holy finger of God pointing to ‘me’ as the one who fails in his life to reflect the character of God.”
  2. “It could serve as a summons to the life of gratitude.”
  3. “It could also serve as a reading from Scripture…[that] consistently stresses instruction in the obligations of the Christian.”

While it is important to pinpoint the purpose of the decalogue in worship, the Liturgical Committee also provides an important qualification: “[W]e must remember, of course, that the Lord is free to use His law, at any moment, to achieve whatever purpose He wishes. If He wills to use His law of a given Sunday morning to convict one worshipper of sin, summon another to obedience, and at the same time inspire another to a grateful hallelujah, no liturgical definition of the law’s function will inhibit him.”

So should Reformed churches keep the decalogue in their worship services? In my experience, at least, the weekly reading of the Ten Commandments helps to anchor our worship in the blazing light of God’s holiness. If it is to have this effect, however, the decalogue must never be separated from the message of the gospel. Apart from confessing our sin, rejoicing in Christ’s salvation, and filling our lives with grateful obedience, the Ten Commandments become a highway to moralism and works-righteousness. Treat the decalogue as a checklist or one of those ubiquitous online quizzes (“I scored 8/10 this past week!”), and your life in Christ will wither. But respond to God’s law by confessing your natural misery and taking refuge in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and the Ten Commandments will spur on what the Catechism so beautifully describes as “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to” (Q&A 90).

O blessed Lord, teach me Thy law,
Thy righteous judgments I declare;
Thy testimonies make me glad,
For they are wealth beyond compare.
Upon Thy precepts and Thy ways
My heart will meditate with awe;
Thy Word shall be my chief delight,
And I will not forget Thy law.

–MRK

–quotes from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement are from pp. 100, 101

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Lord’s Day 36: With Reverence and Awe

Catechism and Psalter

The author of Psalm 135 writes, “Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing to his name, for it is pleasant!  For the Lord has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel as his own possession.”  The name of God is a prominent theme throughout the Scriptures, as exemplified in the content of the third commandment.  Today’s installment of this URC Psalmody series brings us to Lord’s Day 36 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which applies the third commandment to the Christian life.

99 Q.  What is God’s will for us in the third commandment?

A.  That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God
by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths,
nor share in such horrible sins
by being silent bystanders.

In a word, it requires
that we use the holy name of God
only with reverence and awe,
so that we may properly
confess him,
pray to him,
and praise him in everything we do and say.

100 Q.  Is blasphemy of God’s name by swearing and cursing really such serious sin that God is angry also with those who do not do all they can to help prevent it and to forbid it?

A.  Yes, indeed.
No sin is greater,
no sin makes God more angry
than blaspheming his name.
That is why he commanded the death penalty for it.

Suggested Songs

12, “O Lord, Our Lord, in All the Earth” (Psalm 8)

“That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders.”  Too often the name of God in modern culture has been assigned an ordinary and casual status.  While we should not view the Lord’s name as superstitious or unspeakable, we ought to use it “only with reverence and awe”—which requires our hearts to be in the right place.  Psalm 8, which begins and ends with the exclamation, “How excellent is your name in all the earth,” teaches us how we ought to approach this holy God who has so condescendingly revealed himself to us.  The Psalter Hymnal versifies it this way:

O Lord, our Lord, in all the earth
How excellent Thy Name!
Thy glory Thou hast spread afar
In all the starry frame.

When I regard the wondrous heavens,
Thy handiwork on high,
The moon and stars ordained by Thee,
O what is man, I cry.

O what is man, in Thy regard
To hold so large a place,
And what the son of man, that Thou
Dost visit him in grace?

Thy mighty works and wondrous grace
Thy glory, Lord, proclaim.
O Lord, our Lord, in all the earth
How excellent Thy Name!

56, “Jehovah from His Throne on High” (Psalm 33)

“In a word, it requires that we use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess him, pray to him, and praise him in everything we do and say.”  The Lord’s name is more than an empty word; it is the rock upon which we build our faith and hope.  In vivid imagery, the second half of Psalm 33 exhibits the reliance we can place in the name of God.

Jehovah from His throne on high
Looks down with clear and searching eye
On all that dwell below;
And He that fashioned heart and mind
Looks ever down on all mankind,
The works of men to know.
Not human strength or mighty hosts,
Not charging steeds or warlike boasts
Can save from overthrow;
But God will save from death and shame
All those who fear and trust His Name,
And they no want shall know.

His eye is on all those who fear;
To those who hope, the Lord is near
According to His word.
Death cannot touch those in His hand,
Nor famine conquer in the land;
We wait upon the Lord.
Our hope is on Jehovah stayed,
In Him our hearts are joyful made,
Our help and shield is He.
Our trust is in His holy Name,
Thy mercy, Lord, in faith we claim,
As we have hoped in Thee.

304, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” (Psalm 148)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“No sin is greater, no sin makes God more angry than blaspheming his name.”  A significant number of psalms speak of God’s contempt for those who defy his name (for example, think of Psalm 139:20), but to wrap up our study of this Lord’s Day I’ve instead chosen a psalm of praise: Psalm 148.  As versified in the Psalter Hymnal this jubilant ode exhorts all earth’s inhabitants to give praise to the Lord, while declaring that “his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven.”

Only those redeemed through Christ’s blood and restored to fellowship with God can use his name to his glory.  The true point of the third commandment is not that we should fear to speak the Lord’s name.  No, we should be eager to call upon the name of God in all times and situations—but only that he might be honored and glorified.

Hallelujah, praise Jehovah,
From the heavens praise His Name;
Praise Jehovah in the highest,
All His angels, praise proclaim.
All His hosts, together praise Him,
Sun and moon and stars on high;
Praise Him, O ye heavens of heavens,
And ye floods above the sky.

Let them praises give Jehovah,
They were made at His command;
Them forever He established,
His decree shall ever stand.
From the earth, O praise Jehovah,
All ye seas, ye monsters all,
Fire and hail and snow and vapors,
Stormy winds that hear His call.

All ye fruitful trees and cedars,
All ye hills and mountains high,
Creeping things and beasts and cattle,
Birds that in the heavens fly,
Kings of earth, and all ye people,
Princes great, earth’s judges all;
Praise His Name, young men and maidens,
Aged men, and children small.

Let them praises (Let them praises) give Jehovah,
For His Name alone is high,
And His glory (And His glory) is exalted,
And His glory (And His glory) is exalted,
And His glory (And His glory) is exalted,
Far above the earth and sky.

–MRK

Lord’s Day 34: Our Relation to God

Catechism and Psalter

Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism stated that as Christians “we do good…so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us.”  This explanation begs another question: How exactly do we show our gratitude to God?  Today we’ll turn to Lord’s Day 34 in our URC Psalmody series, which begins a thorough and systematic answer to this essential question.

92 Q.  What does the Lord say in his law?

[The Catechism here lists the Ten Commandments as recorded in Exodus xx.]

93 Q.  How are these commandments divided?

A.  Into two tables.
The first has four commandments,
teaching us what our relation to God should be.
The second has six commandments,
teaching us what we owe our neighbor.

94 Q.  What does the Lord require in the first commandment?

A.  That I, not wanting to endanger my very salvation,
avoid and shun
all idolatry, magic, superstitious rites,
and prayer to saints or to other creatures.

That I sincerely acknowledge the only true God,
trust him alone,
look to him for every good thing
humbly and patiently,
love him, fear him, and honor him
with all my heart.

In short, that I give up anything
rather than go against his will in any way.

95 Q.  What is idolatry?

A.  Idolatry is
having or inventing something in which one trusts
in place of or alongside of the only true God,
who has revealed himself in his Word.

Suggested Songs

236, “How Blest the Perfect in the Way” (Psalm 119)

“What does God say in his law?”  Here the Catechism departs drastically both from the legalism of the Roman Catholic church and the antinomianism of the modern evangelical movement.  Is there still a place for the law in the Christian life?  Yes—not as an instrument of guilt, but rather as a rule of gratitude.

Having been set free from bondage to sin, we naturally ought to ask, “How can I best please God?  What is his will for my life?”  To answer this question, the Catechism (along with the historic church) looks to the Ten Commandments given by God to the people of Israel.

The very first section of Psalm 119, as versified in the blue Psalter Hymnal, calls attention to the manifold blessings that result from wholehearted obedience to God’s commandments.

How blest the perfect in the way,
Who from God’s law do not depart,
Who, holding fast the Word of truth,
Seek Him with undivided heart.

Yea, they are kept from paths of sin
Who walk in God’s appointed way;
Thy precepts Thou hast given us
That we should faithfully obey.

248, “How I Love Thy Law, O Lord” (Psalm 119)

“The first has four commandments, teaching us what our relation to God should be. The second has six commandments, teaching us what we owe our neighbor.”  Here another setting of a segment of Psalm 119 is especially fitting:

How I love Thy law, O Lord!
Daily joy its truths afford;
In its constant light I go,
Wise to conquer every foe.
Thy commandments in my heart
Truest wisdom can impart;
To mine eyes Thy precepts show
Wisdom more than sages know.

While my heart Thy Word obeys,
I am kept from evil ways;
From Thy law, with Thee to guide,
I have never turned aside.
Sweeter are Thy words to me
Than all other good can be;
Safe I walk, Thy truth my light,
Hating falsehood, loving right.

122, “Let God Arise, and by His Might” (Psalm 68)

“That I, not wanting to endanger my very salvation, avoid and shun all idolatry, magic, superstitious rites, and prayer to saints or to other creatures.”  What better starting point of God’s will for our lives could there be than the acknowledgment of his sovereignty?  To give any homage to other “gods,” whether or not they may be physical idols, is to disown the very Sustainer of our souls.  Even as it offers confidence to the righteous, Psalm 68 declares that any who seek to deny the only God are doomed to destruction.

Let God arise, and by His might
Let all His foes be put to flight;
But O ye righteous, gladly sing,
Exult before your God and King.

Jehovah’s praises sound abroad,
Rejoice before the living God;
Prepare the way that He may come
And make the desert places bloom.

Thou wilt rebuke the fierce and strong
Who hate the right and choose the wrong,
And scatter those who peace abhor,
The nations that delight in war.

The heathen princes yet shall flee
From idols and return to Thee;
Earth’s sinful and benighted lands
To God shall soon stretch out their hands.

282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim” (Psalm 135)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and at Synod 2012)

“That I sincerely acknowledge the only true God, trust him alone, look to him for every good thing humbly and patiently, love him, fear him, and honor him with all my heart.”  The Heidelberg Catechism wonderfully reflects one beautiful aspect of the Ten Commandments: that they are not just prohibitions.  Under these ten simple statutes lies the entire framework of the grateful Christian life, a life that grows increasingly holy and redounds to the glory of God.  We see this reflected in the powerful words of question and answer 94, echoing the reverent lines of Psalm 135:

Exalt the Lord, His praise proclaim;
All ye His servants, praise His Name,
Who in the Lord’s house ever stand
And humbly serve at His command.
The Lord is good, His praise proclaim;
Since it is pleasant, praise His Name;
His people for His own He takes
And His peculiar treasure makes.

I know the Lord is high in state,
Above all gods our Lord is great;
The Lord performs what He decrees,
In heaven and earth, in depths and seas.
He makes the vapors to ascend
In clouds from earth’s remotest end;
The lightnings flash at His command,
He holds the tempest in His hand.

Forever praise and bless His Name,
And in the Church His praise proclaim;
In Zion is His dwelling-place;
Praise ye the Lord, show forth His grace.

–MRK

Lord’s Day 33: Wholehearted Joy

Catechism and Psalter

Last week we entered upon the third and final section of the Heidelberg Catechism, which explains the cause of the Christian’s good works.  Having been redeemed from the depths of our sin and misery, we delight to show our love for Christ by obeying him in every aspect of our lives.  Lord’s Day 33, which we’ll consider today in our URC Psalmody series, fleshes out this doctrine a little more fully.

88 Q.  What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?

A.  Two things:
the dying-away of the old self,
and the coming-to-life of the new.

89 Q.  What is the dying-away of the old self?

A.  It is to be genuinely sorry for sin,
to hate it more and more,
and to run away from it.

90 Q.  What is the coming-to-life of the new self?

A.  It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ
and a delight to do every kind of good
as God wants us to.

91 Q.  What do we do that is good?

A.  Only that which
arises out of true faith,
conforms to God’s law,
and is done for his glory;
and not that which is based
on what we think is right
or on established human tradition.

Suggested Songs

47, “Be Thou My Judge” (Psalm 26)

“Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.”  The author of Psalm 26 expresses both components of sanctification, asking the Lord to be his Judge as he seeks to obey him.

O search me, Lord, and prove me now;
Thy mercy I adore;
I choose Thy truth to be my guide,
And sinful ways abhor.

My hands I wash in innocence
And seek Thine altar, Lord,
That there I may with thankful voice
Thy wondrous works record.

Let not the judgment fall on me
For evil men decreed,
For cruel men and violent,
Inspired by bribes and greed.

But I in mine integrity
Will humbly walk with Thee;
O my Redeemer and my Lord,
Be merciful to me.

Redeemed by Thee, I stand secure
In peace and happiness;
And in the Church, among Thy saints,
Jehovah I will bless.

57, “Ye Righteous in the Lord, Rejoice” (Psalm 33)

“[T]he coming-to-life of the new self…is wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.”  The redeemed sinner looks with joy to the wondrous deeds of the Lord and strives to reflect his glory in all of life.

Ye righteous, in the Lord rejoice;
‘Tis comely that with joyful voice
God’s saints His Name should praise.
With harp and hymn of gladness sing,
Your gift of sweetest music bring,
To Him a new song raise.

For upright is Jehovah’s word,
And all the doings of the Lord
In justice have their birth.
In judgment and in deeds of right
The Lord forever takes delight,
His goodness fills the earth.

187, “Sing to the Lord, Sing His Praise” (Psalm 96)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

Our good work is “that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.”  Perhaps the most striking part of this Catechism answer is the phrase “done for his glory”—as Jesus says in Matthew 5, the motive for our Christ-like behavior is “so that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (v. 16).  Psalm 96 calls us to possess this mindset:

Sing to the Lord, sing His praise, all ye peoples,
New be your song as new honors ye pay;
Sing of His majesty, bless Him forever,
Show His salvation from day to day.

Tell of His wondrous works, tell of His glory,
Till through the nations His Name is revered;
Praise and exalt Him, for He is almighty,
God over all, let the Lord be feared.

Give unto God Most High glory and honor,
Come with your offerings and humbly draw near;
In holy beauty now worship Jehovah,
Tremble before Him with godly fear.

Make all the nations know God reigns forever;
Earth is established as He did decree;
Righteous and just is the King of the nations,
Judging the people with equity.

Let heaven and earth be glad; waves of the ocean,
Forest and field, exultation express;
For God is coming, the Judge of the nations,
Coming to judge in His righteousness.

–MRK


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