God's Law in Worship
In Part One of this article I presented the case that the church should consistently instruct and encourage Christians to live in obedience to God. Some complain that God’s law is a burden. Yet God’s will for our lives is not a set of arbitrary demands, it is how God designed us to live and the path to blessing. “Blessed are those who do not walk in step with the wicked . . . but who delight in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1).
Another mistaken idea we sometimes lapse into is the false idea that good intentions are all that matter. The Heidelberg Catechism says that in order for us to avoid sin, what we do must meet three conditions: it must be done out of true faith, it must be done in accord with God’s law, and it must be done to God’s glory. Good intentions are not enough. Our actions must be in accord with God’s law. So it’s important that Christians have some knowledge of what the law requires.
Weekly worship is a prime occasion during which this knowledge can be shared with God’s people. This article presents some ideas about how to meet this purpose in the various elements in the liturgy.
1. Service of Reconciliation: Confession of Sin
According to the Heidelberg Catechism, we come to know our sin and misery by means of the law of God.
The truth is that today it is very hard for many people, even Christians, to see their sin. The trend today in our therapeutic culture is to speak of our brokenness and of our weakness. These terms leave it ambiguous whether a person is actually responsible for sin. A broken, weak person needs help, not necessarily forgiveness. One of the hardest tasks of pastors today is to help people see that they need a Savior. So this matter of calling people to confess their sin is particularly important.
One reason that people fail to recognize sin is that they are unfamiliar with God’s standards for human life. For instance, many think that if they have been physically faithful to their spouse they have kept the commandment against adultery. They do not consider the sins of lust, illicit desire, or imagination. Christian people need to understand God’s standards for righteous conduct so that they can properly confess their sin.
2. Service of Reconciliation: Guide to Grateful Living
When God’s people confess their sin and are reminded of God’s grace and forgiveness, they experience relief, joy, and gratitude. These should increase in them twin desires: to stop sinning as much as possible and to do more good. These desires are satisfied by the same goal, to live according to God’s will. In order to make even modest headway toward this goal it is essential to know what God’s law is.
Properly interpreted, the Ten Commandments cover every aspect of human life, every choice we could make. On first reading this does not seem to be so: for example, where would you find our duty to be good stewards? Or to evangelize? Understanding the commandments as broadly and deeply as we should requires some serious exegetical effort. Simply reading the commandments is little help in understanding any of them very well.
One helpful strategy for avoiding the problems of repetition and misunderstanding is to read God’s will from other parts of Scripture. Deuteronomy is a rich source for instructions about God’s will, as are the prophets. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 has some instruction about many areas of our lives, and portions of it can be read in different weeks. Paul’s epistles have all kinds of instructions about God’s will for us, for example, Galatians 5, Ephesians 4, Colossians 3, and Romans 12.
Another helpful source for learning more about God’s will is the Heidelberg Catechism. A litany comprised of a Lord’s Day question and answer about the meaning of one of the commandments can help keep the instruction fresh. Or the liturgist could include the duties of the commandments as they are explained in the Heidelberg Catechism one week and the negative implications the next week. Also, the Westminster Confession has a very thorough Reformed analysis of each commandment that is of great help in understanding God’s will.
Finally, there are Christian authors, both classic and contemporary, who have beautifully written about God’s will. Many of these works are helpful for seeing God’s will for our lives in a fresh and revealing way, for example, Augustine’s Confessions, Ronald J. Sider’s Living Like Jesus, and Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath.
Worship services include hymns and psalms. Many psalms celebrate God’s law, for examples Psalm 1, 19, and 119. Other psalms give instruction on how a person ought to live, as do many hymns. Often these can speak in general terms about loving others, so it is important to try to use some songs that have specific biblical instructions. For example, a versification of Psalm 78 reminds us of our obligation to give witness of the gospel to our children and to others.
Other older hymns such as “Trust and Obey” or “Teach Me, O Lord, Your Way of Truth” give some encouragement or instruction in Christian living, but there are relatively fewer contemporary songs that touch on these themes. One encouraging trend, however, is the emphasis on social justice evident in both new hymnody and contemporary music styles.
The Heidelberg Catechism says that of all the responses that should be offered to God for his grace in Christ, prayer is the most important. When we pray we are obeying God, who calls for prayer in the third commandment. Public prayers offer an opportunity for the one praying to articulate our human perceptions, concerns, and hopes. They also serve as models of proper prayer, and in that way encourage Christians to offer God fitting prayers. Therefore, great care should be taken to offer petitions that are consistent with God’s will so that we can truly say “for Jesus’ sake.” Clearly, however, when we address God in petitionary prayer our purpose is not to repeat God’s will so much as to express our own praise, confession, thanksgiving, and petition.
The sermon is a prime occasion for explaining to God’s people a proper, obedient response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. As the respondents to Peter’s Pentecost sermon were warned to save themselves from their corrupt generation, so God’s people today need to know the shape of Christian obedience in these times. Every sermon should have at least some clear guidance to help God’s people in their efforts toward greater sanctification: how to worship, how to pray, how to serve others, and so on. The danger always present in preaching is to raise the stakes for our obedience as if our salvation depends on it.
As preachers try to explain God’s will to people two problems can occur: moralism and legalism. Most biblical narratives are intended primarily as history and not as ethics. But often preachers will find a moral of their own choosing in the narrative and preach it as if it is God’s Word. Only when the narrative itself makes it obvious that we should or should not imitate the persons in the story should the preacher make such pronouncements.
This problem of moralizing can lead to legalism. Legalism occurs when a law practice is required that is not required by God’s law or Scripture. For example, in the past some Reformed preachers have condemned going to the movies. Preachers have to be careful not to create obligations that go beyond what God himself requires.
One way both the doctrines of the church and instruction in Christian obedience can be taught is by preaching through whole books of the Bible or by preaching through a catechism. Knowing true doctrine helps Christians think properly and steer clear of heresy. Hearing how we should shape our attitudes and actions helps Christians become the people God wants them to be.
Worship services today need to aim specifically at providing God’s people training in obedient living. Forgiven in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we still need the instruction of God’s Word to know how to live as God intends: “Moses . . . said to all Israel . . . ‘You have now become the people of the Lord your God. . . . Obey the Lord your God and follow his commands and decrees that I give you today’” (Deut. 27:9-10).
The church has now become the people of the Lord. Christians must strive to shape their lives in an obedient response to God’s grace in Christ. Christian worship must consistently give instruction and encouragement.
The Ten Commandments Expanded
- Don’t pay attention to or put any trust in astrology, Ouija boards, luck, or any other supposed supernatural power. Trust only in God.
- Worship God in spirit and truth.
- Always protect and promote God’s reputation and his glory.
- Always make time to worship and thank God.
- Respect and honor everyone who has legitimate authority over you,
including your parents, teachers, employers, and government officials, even when they make mistakes.
- Promote your own health and everyone else’s health and life.
- Don’t interfere in anyone else’s marriage, and don’t pollute your own, whether you are now married or hope to be one day.
- Be careful how you are with possessions, your own or others’. Remember, you are only a steward.
- Always and only speak the truth in love.
- Remember that God is concerned not only with your words and deeds, but also with your heart. So be careful what you watch, what you think about, what you plan for, what you desire.