With Reverence and Awe
by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether
Phillipsburg: P & R Publishers, 2002
Readers who are a part of the tiny part of the kingdom of God called Presbyterian and Reformed might recognize the authors of this book as elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Some of my fellow PCA folk may be tempted to dismiss what they have to say outright. Hart is vocal critic of certain things many PCA people hold dearly. But we would be foolish to dismiss this work on that account. On the contrary, we would do well to carefully consider what Hart and Muether have to say about worship.
At the foundation, their argument is that theology matters when it comes to worship. Even if we might tend to give lip service to that proposition, in practice many of our worship services look suspiciously like worship services from radically different theological traditions. If theology matters for worship, why should there be so much consonance in worship between churches that embrace such markedly different theologies. Hart and Muether summarize: “We believe that good theology must produce good worship, corporate acts of praise and devotion that fit the sound theology of the Reformed tradition. On the other hand, defective theology yields inferior or inappropriate forms of worship” (13). Needless to say, they are not interested in steering clear of controversy.
What shape does worship take when it is molded by Reformed theology? The authors organize their answers to that question by addressing who worships and how worship is to be carried out; they end the book by tackling the most controversial topic of what music ought to be used in worship. While the question of “who worships” would have been a non-starter in days gone by, it is a live question in our time.
The authors remind us that, for all the talk of reaching the lost through worship, it remains that unbelievers do not worship the true God. They quote favorably the observation of R. B. Kuiper who writes that “to be the opposite of the world is not only necessary for the well-being of the church but is essential to its very being. If the church should cease being antithetical to the world, it would no longer be the church” (33). When the church sheds its own identity to identify itself with the world, it loses the only resources it has to be what it is called to be to the world. It loses its saltiness. The church must thus be unapologetic in her worship; she must not cater to those who are, after all, “…bound to ridicule her ways as foolish.” (34).
In seeking to identify “who” worships, Hart and Muether also argue that the church is called to carry out the Great Commission. It is not an agent of social transformation (though it may contribute to it). The world does not set the agenda for the church; Christ sets the agenda for the church. If the Great Commission is what the church is about, then worship is essential to the health of every believer. Worship is the real work of the church. “It is a time when Christians are discipled by God’s Word as it is preached, as it is signified and sealed in the sacraments, and as it provides the substance of the church’s prayers. Worship is not merely wise; it is necessary for discipleship” (47).
The question of who worships must also consider the purpose of the salvation. According to Hart and Muether, the purpose of salvation is worship (52). Again, if that is true, then worship is essential to our very identity as believers in Christ. We cannot be ourselves and forsake public worship. But in addition, we need the things that the Lord commends for public worship in order to grow in grace. If we avoid worship, or we ignore God’s instructions for worship, we do so at the peril of growth in grace (57). We have been made new creatures, but in this wilderness we need the regular sustenance the Lord provides. Many activities may be good. But God’s promises are attached to the particular things that we find in corporate public worship. They are attached to the word, sacraments and prayer. How can we dismiss the only means by which the Lord has promised to communicate his grace to us?
Further reflection on this book will continue in Part 2.