Means of Grace

Ephesians 6:1 on Children and Public Worship

In many evangelical churches it has become increasingly common for the little ones to be excluded in one way or another from attending public worship with their families.

We have the nursery for infants, separate programs of various kinds for the younger children, and some churches even go so far as to have a separate meeting(s) for the youth (i.e. junior and senior high school students) during the worship service.  It would almost seem that in some churches a child could practically go from infancy all the way through graduation from high school without ever actually attending the public worship of their church! (And we wonder why so many children leave the church when they move away to college – they were never really in the church in the first place!)

Now this post is not intended to be an argument against churches having nurseries or cry rooms available to their members who have little ones. (Nor is it an argument against youth ministry in general.) Parents sometimes worry that their noisy infant or toddler might disrupt things or distract others from worship. Such concerns are understandable. (As a father of three younger children myself, I know what it is like to have one of our children crying, wiggling around in their seats, or generally making noise of some kind.) But some churches actually go so far as to openly discourage parents from keeping their little ones with them during the service.

That should not be the case. Parents in our churches should not be discouraged from having their little ones sit with them during the worship service. More than that, I believe that we should do what we can to make children (and their parents!) actually feel welcome in the worship services of our churches. Might that lead to more noise and distraction? Sure. But I think the benefits (especially to the children) over the long haul far outweigh any apparent short-lived negatives that might be involved in having them sit in with the rest of the church during worship.

Not only that, but I believe that we actually have scriptural warrant for such a practice. In Ephesians 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul quotes and applies the 5th commandment, saying,

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (ESV)

Notice that in his epistle to the church he gives an imperative or command to children. And he does not just give this command to them through their parents, but rather addresses it to the children themselves – directly. In other words, he doesn’t say, “Parents, make sure that your children know that they should obey you in the Lord, for this is right,” but rather “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (v.1, italics mine)

That should get our attention. Paul, the great apostle and evangelist to the Gentiles, did not see himself as above teaching children; he did not view them as unworthy of instruction along with the rest of the church. Even more importantly for our purposes here, we should take note that he clearly presupposes the presence of children in the public worship services of the church, where his epistles would no doubt have been read and taught to the church.

This also implies that in our preaching we ought to bear in mind the presence of children, and even address them directly at times, when applicable. This also means that our preaching should not be aimed so far over their heads that they cannot even begin to understand anything that is being said.

And let us never forget the words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who said,

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14, ESV)

The Prayer Meeting as a Gauge of the Spiritual Life of the Church

Elder DicksonPerhaps the only thing rarer in the church these days than the Sunday evening worship service is the prayer meeting. And even when there is a regular prayer meeting, it is surely often one of the most sparsely-attended gatherings of the church.

Why is this the case? Did our Lord Jesus not say (quoting Isaiah 56:7) that “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46)? The church, then, should be characterized by (among other things) prayer.

Now, it is certainly possible that a church can be a praying church without necessarily having a weekly prayer meeting. But it sure helps, doesn’t it? If your church has a regular prayer meeting, even if  it is not well-attended, take heart. Don’t give up on it. Great things often come from small beginnings.

In his book, The Elder and His Work, David Dickson (1821-1885) makes the following observation:

“In a country village of which we know, there has been a prayer meeting conducted now for more than a hundred years. That place has been blessed three or four times with a revival of religion – shall we not say in answer to these prayers? This interesting fact was also told us: that when the tide of blessing was about to come in, the numbers began unaccountably to increase till the place was too strait for them; even outside the door there were many earnest attenders. The people knew that the tide was far out when the number fell to five or six. Then they began to pray again for a turning of the tide, and a spring tide came. Alas! in many of our congregations the tide is far out, if we are to judge by attendance at prayer meetings, which are a kind of gauge of spiritual life; yet let those who attend them continue to pray on.” (p.79)

That observation may be somewhat anecdotal, but it certainly strikes me as true. I have long been convinced that we will know that something really special is happening in the life of our church when our weekly prayer meetings start being strongly-attended.

Is the “tide” far out at your church? Maybe so. But who knows what the Lord may do (or when) if His people just continue to pray on together. If attendance at prayer meetings is a “gauge” of the spiritual life of the church, and if that gauge shows that our churches are in need of revitalization and revival, let us continue to pray together for a turning of the tide. Let us watch and pray for the spring tide to roll in.

Sinclair Ferguson on the Preaching of the Word

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315How important is the preaching of the Word of God in the lives of God’s people? How does its importance rank in comparison to things such as personal Bible reading or devotional study? Or small group Bible study?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes the following observation:

“Although set at a discount today by comparison with participation in either personal Bible study or more particularly group Bible study, neither of these, valuable as they may be, can substitute for the transforming power of the preached word.” (p.49)

Now Ferguson is not denying or downplaying the benefits of personal or group Bible studies. Far from it! But he is saying something that seems to go against conventional wisdom in many church circles today. What he is arguing for is the centrality of the preached Word of God in the life of the church.

If you want to grow in grace as a Christian, personal Bible reading and study are very good things. So is small group Bible study. But there is something special about the preaching of the Word of God. This is also the teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 89) which speaks of how the Word of God is made effectual to salvation in the lives of believers:

“The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

Another way of putting it would be to say that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God in the lives of believers. And He certainly uses our own personal reading and study of the Word. But it is “especially the preaching of the Word” that He makes effectual in the lives of God’s people!

So if you are a believer in Christ and desire to see the Holy Spirit at work in your life, making you grow in grace and transforming your life more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ, make it your practice to diligently attend upon the preaching of the Word in public worship. There is simply no substitute for the preached Word in the lives of God’s people!

How to Listen to a Sermon

1710_largeA lot of hard work usually goes into preaching a sermon (if it is done properly). The average  expository sermon that goes for maybe 30-45 minutes might take anywhere from 10-20 hours of preparation time, depending on the pastor and the particular circumstances of his church or situation in a given week. (Many pastors will not be able to allocate 20 hours of study/prep time, of course.)

But what about listening to sermons? Is there anything that goes into that other than simply showing up and listening? The Westminster Larger Catechism addresses this question:

Q. 160. What is required of those that hear the Word preached? A. It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives”

So there are some things that are actually required from the listener (not just the preacher) in order to get the most out of the preaching of God’s Word on the Lord’s day. What are some of those things?

First, we must “attend upon it with diligence.” Show up for worship on Sundays, and do so consistently & regularly. Make it your habit and priority to be there every Lord’s day (morning and evening, if applicable). Show up and listen. Real listening takes some effort. Focus on and pay attention to the sermon, and do not allow yourself to be distracted by other things (e.g. put you cell phone away).

Second, attend upon it with preparation. What would you say if I were to tell you that to a large extent what you ‘get out of the sermon’ (to use a common phrase) depends upon what you do before the sermon ever starts? In fact, the way that you spend your Saturdays will largely influence the quality of your time spent in worship on Sundays. Do you get enough sleep, as much as depends upon you to do so? Or do you stay up or out too late at night? (It is difficult to attend diligently upon the preaching of the Word of God if you are half asleep.)

Do you read through the sermon text prior to worship? Not just five minutes before the service, but during the week, or even the night before the service. This, of course, requires that one actually know what the sermon text will be ahead of time. In many churches, especially in those where the pastor(s) preach expositionally straight through entire books of the Bible, this is not at all difficult to do. So make it a point to spend some time reading the sermon text in advance. Think about what the passage means, and the many ways that it might apply to your life.

Thirdly, do all of this with prayer. Do we prayerfully prepare for worship? Do we prayerfully read through the sermon text ahead of time, asking the Lord to give us understanding? At the end of the day we must pray, because we must be taught by the Lord if we are going to understand His Word rightly, and apply it rightly as well.

The next thing we are instructed to do is to examine what we hear by the Scriptures. This, of course, is based upon Acts 17:11 which says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so“(ESV). They received the Word of God “with all eagerness.” What a great picture of the disposition that God’s people should have toward the preaching of the Word of God! And their eagerness to receive the Word of God led them to examine whatever they heard by the Scriptures! If they could do that when they heard the Apostle Paul himself preaching (and be considered “noble” for doing so!), how much more should we who hear the Word preached today make it a point to examine what we hear by the Scriptures!

And the last thing(s) that Q.160 mentions is that we must then “receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.” In other words, once we have prepared, prayed, carefully listened, examined what was said in the sermon, and found it to be true to the Scriptures, we should receive it as the very Word of God! That means receiving it “with faith” (believing/trusting it), love, and humility. That means meditating or thinking upon it, discussing it, memorizing it or keeping it in mind, and applying or obeying it. After all, James 1:22 tells us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (ESV). Hearing the Word is a good start, but it is only the beginning!

That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? That’s a lot of work for the listener! But that is the right way to approach listening to the faithful preaching of the Word of God. By God’s grace, seek to make this your practice, and you may strangely find your pastor’s preaching inexplicably getting much better (even when his actual preaching has not changed)! Even more importantly, you may find the Word of God bearing much fruit in your life, to the glory of God!

Feeding the Flock With a Slingshot? (Dabney on Polemics in Preaching)

dabney-eeFeeding Christ’s sheep is a common metaphor for the preaching and teaching aspect of pastoral ministry. When the risen Christ told Simon Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17), He certainly intended Peter to understand that if he (Peter) truly loved Him, one of the primary ways that he was to show it was in feeding Christ’s sheep by ministering the Word of God to them faithfully.

The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2), the writer of the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12-14), and even the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:2) likewise all used imagery involving feeding (or eating) to describe the ministry of the Word.

And so a right view of the preaching and teaching ministry in the church will necessarily involve seeing it in some way as (among other things) feeding Christ’s sheep. That should have a profound influence on the way that we approach preaching in the church. True Christian preaching should be done for the glory of Christ, and for the benefit (even the spiritual nourishment) of the flock.

In his book, Evangelical Eloquence, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) offers a number of critiques and cautions about certain kinds of preaching that are not fitting in the church. One of those preaching styles or practices might be described as polemics-centered preaching.

What is polemics? It can be defined as the practice of refuting error by means of dispute or argumentation. It can rightly be thought of as at least one aspect of destroying arguments raised against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Certainly there is a place for that in the preaching and teaching of the church.

Nonetheless, Dabney had the following to say about the kind of preaching that focuses almost entirely on polemics:

“In [other pulpits] the Sabbaths of the people are wholly occupied with those polemics by which the outworks of Christianity should be defended against the foreign assaults of infidel philosophy; as though one would feed the flock within the fold with the bristling missiles which should have been hurled against the wolves without.” (p.39)

Now here he is not condemning any and all polemics in our pulpits – far from it! There is nothing wrong with polemics in the pulpit per se. There is most certainly a use (even a need) for it at times. Without it, the flock will be unprepared for some of the assaults from within or without that might threaten the doctrinal integrity and unity of the church. But not all polemical issues are relevant (or even accessible) to the flock.

Sometimes, as Dabney rightly points out above, polemical preaching can be aimed at the wrong audience. Sometimes the staff (or the “bristling missiles,” as Dabney puts it) that should be used with force against the wolves, ends up being misdirected at the sheep instead. Such preaching is surely no way to feed Christ’s flock.

So let us feed Christ’s sheep in all of our preaching and teaching in the church. And let polemics have their proper place in our preaching and teaching, to be sure, but not the central place, lest we mistakenly try to feed Christ’s sheep a steady diet of stones or “bristling missiles.” Let us be careful not to try to feed Christ’s sheep with a slingshot. It not only fails to keep the wolves away, but it also leads to a malnourished flock.

Becoming “Sermon-Proof” (John Owen on The Dangers of Sin)

mortificationofsinIn his book, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen notes (among other things) the importance and necessity of having “a clear and abiding sense” in our minds and consciences of “the guilt, danger, and evil of sin” (p.65). Without a clear, biblical understanding of sin for what it really is, we will be ill-equipped to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit (Romans 8:13).

There he points out a number of the many dangers that sin poses to us, the first of which is the danger of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). He writes:

“This hardening is so serious that your heart becomes insensitive to moral influence. Sin leads to this. Every sin and lust will make a little progress in this direction. You who at one time were very tender and would melt under the influence of the Word and under trials will grow ‘sermon-proof’ and ‘trial proof.'” (p.68)

Sermon-proof. What a sobering phrase! It is bad enough that so many in our day simply avoid hearing the preaching of the Word in public worship altogether; but how much worse is the condition of those who, though they regularly attend the preaching of the Word, nevertheless have grown immune to its benefits.

Sermon-proof. That is a fitting description of the people of Isaiah’s day:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV)

To be sermon-proof is to continually hear, but not understand, to see, but not perceive. And what is the end result? A refusal to “turn” (or repent) and “be healed.” No wonder the writer of the book of Hebrews warns us of the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13)!

Are you sermon-proof? Do not content yourself with the mere hearing of sermons. Hearing sermons is certainly a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Hearing sermons, even on a regular, weekly basis is no firm evidence that one is not sermon proof. One can hear sermons until the proverbial cows come home, and yet do so with no benefit whatsoever.

Let us learn to attend the preaching of God’s Word in public worship “with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.90).

And, as the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it, let us “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13, ESV).

The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory (The Conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer)

Praying Hands

In this our last study through the Lord’s prayer, we now come to the conclusion of the prayer. The Lord’s Prayer concludes with these words:

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:13, KJV).

If you were raised in a church where the Lord’s prayer was a part of the liturgy of the worship service on Sundays (which used to be much more common than it seems to be in our day), no doubt those words are very familiar to you. If so, you may well have uttered these very words in prayer more times than you can even count.

But have you ever stopped to think about what these words mean? What exactly are we saying when we pray, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory”? And what is the Lord Jesus teaching us about prayer when he concludes this great model prayer with those words?

The very last question (Q.107) of the Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a very helpful explanation of what Jesus teaches us here in the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer. It says that these words teach us the following:

“to take our encouragement in prayer from God only, and in our prayers to praise Him, ascribing kingdom, power, and glory to Him; and, in testimony of our desire, and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen.

So the first thing we see there is that the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer teaches us “to take our encouragement in prayer from God only.” In other words, it is because we pray to the one true and living God, whose kingdom is over all, whose power is infinite and without limits, and whose glory outshines and outstrips all else, that can and should pray with confidence that He is both willing and able to answer all of the requests that we are taught to pray for in this great pattern prayer.

Secondly, the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer teaches us to praise God in our praying. It is far too easy to neglect to do that in our prayers, isn’t it? How often do we approach God in prayer as if we were presenting a shopping list of sorts? As Psalm 33:1 tells us, “Praise befits the upright” (ESV). We should praise God because it is fitting – it is the right thing to do. And we should remember to praise God in our prayers. In doing so, we remind ourselves of who it is that we are praying to in the first place. What an encouragement that would be to us in prayer!

Last but not least, the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer teaches us to testify to our desire and our assurance to be heard by God in our prayers by adding the simple word “Amen.” That word has the idea of saying “Let it be so.” The better we conform our praying to the Lord’s will as expressed in this model prayer, the more easily we will be able to add our “amen” to it!

I hope (and pray!) that you have found this brief series of studies through the Lord’s prayer to be helpful, and to be an encouragement to you in prayer. May the Lord Jesus teach us more and more to pray in accordance with this great pattern prayer – Amen!