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Hearing and Obeying God's Law

Part One of a Two-part Discussion

In part one of this two-part article, Calvin Van Reken argues that the church ought to reclaim the practice of calling God’s people to obedient living. I encourage you to take time to read this article, to think it through, and to discuss it with your worship planning group or others in your church community. With a good foundation and understanding of why the law of God ought to be included in worship, we will be better prepared to apply the practical suggestions Van Reken will lay out in RW 84. —JB


At the conclusion of Peter’s inspired Pentecost sermon the people “were cut to the heart.” They asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?”(Acts 2:37). The answer was this: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). In response to Peter’s altar call several thousand repented and believed.

Now imagine this first church of Jerusalem gathering for weekly worship after Pentecost. Are the sermons aimed only at another altar call? Are repenting and believing the first and the last responses to the gospel?

Repent, Be Baptized, and . . . ?

Even on that first Pentecost, Peter’s message was not just “repent and be baptized.” Acts 2 continues, “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’” Peter’s very first sermon, his Pentecost sermon, called those first responders not merely to repent and be baptized, but also to reform their lives. Peter obeyed what Jesus had commanded the disciples in the great commission: “. . . Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

The end of Acts 2 describes the reformed lives of those first Christians: they gathered together; they learned from the apostles; they prayed; they ate together; they shared all things. In their cultural context this was the beginning of their obedient service to God and to others. The gospel called them both to saving faith and to faithful living.

The same is true for us. The faith that saves for eternity is a faith that should blossom into ongoing obedience here and now. Thus Christian worship services should include both the message of the gospel and answers to the question What shall we do? Worship must both tell the story of God’s saving work through Jesus and provide instruction on how to respond to the grace of God with obedient lives.

This is an important truth, since the idea of obedience has fallen on particularly hard times in our postmodern setting. Even Christians are troubled by the idea of a God who issues commands and calls for our obedience. We’d rather see God as an accepting and understanding friend who offers suggestions or advice from time to time. But such a perception softens any account of God’s norms for our lives and quiets the call for us to obey them.

In this article I will offer some theological reasons why Christian worship should challenge people to hear and obey God’s law and show how the commandments are to work in the Christian life. In RW 84 I will offer practical suggestions about how to encourage this mindset in worship.

Law and Gospel

Let’s begin by making clear what we mean when we speak of the law of God. When the Reformers talked about the law, they generally had in mind the Ten Commandments. John Calvin saw in the commandments a kind of summary of the entire law of God. Thus in his commentary on the first five books of the Bible, Calvin arranges each of the Mosaic laws under one of the ten commandments, as an application of how that commandment was to work in Israel’s life.

Some Christians object to any liturgical use of God’s law in order to be absolutely clear about the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. They are anxious to avoid the error of thinking that obedience to the law in some way contributes to salvation, so they cleanly separate law and gospel. But we need to be careful that we do not dismiss the law because of its misuse, particularly because the law has several uses.

In his commentary on Colossians written in 1534, Philip Melancthon was the first to identify that the law has three uses: pedagogical, civic, and normative.

Pedagogical: Convicting Us of Our Sin

In pedagogical use, the law is the teacher of sin. When our life is measured by the standard of the perfect holiness and righteousness that God’s law requires, the law shows that we are sinners. Being convicted of our sin, then, we look for the Savior, Jesus Christ, who can deliver us from our just condemnation.

Civic: Establishing a Just Social Order

In civic use, the law is a standard for establishing a just social order. No Western country has adopted the Ten Commandments in their entirety as the basis of its civic order, but some, including the founders of the United States, have adapted the second table of the law.

Normative: Guide for Christian Living

The normative use of God’s law is to provide a guide for Christian living. Christians should be challenged to live holy and righteous lives, but not in order to earn their salvation. Christians are already forgiven, adopted heirs of Christ. Becoming a Christian takes an act of God called justification. Obedience to the law has no role in justification; God alone justifies. What Christians need to work on is sanctification, the outworking of a life of faith in the world, a process that ebbs and flows (Canons of Dort, Fifth Head of Doctrine, Art. 1-6). The law is the rule and guide for how true faith works itself out in the life of the Christian. Thus it is explained in the third part of the Heidelberg Catechism that deals with our grateful response to the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.

So God’s law serves us in three ways: it teaches about sin, it instructs about civil justice, and it describes a righteous life in response to God’s grace. All three of these can and should find a place in the worship of the church. The most important use, though, is to guide God’s people so that by knowing what is right and good they can show their gratitude to God by following God’s will more closely. For this they need to be regularly reminded of God’s law.

Learning From Worship Practices of the Past

The idea of reminding God’s people of his law in worship is a very old one. The most obvious way believers were instructed in the way of obedience in the history of the church was by the reading or singing of the Ten Commandments. This practice originally began in the late Middle Ages, when worship services in the vernacular included the reading of the law along with the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer as catechetical devices.

The Reformers Zwingli and Bucer each included the law in their liturgies, although since they also intended these for catechetical instruction it was at first a matter of some indifference to them at what place in the liturgy the law was to be included. Bucer placed it between the reading of the epistle and the gospel.  Later he used the law as a call to confession, using it in its capacity as a teacher of sin.

When Calvin came into contact with Bucer’s practice in Strasbourg, he changed the position of the reading of the law. Calvin placed it after the confession and words of absolution, that is, he used it as a rule of gratitude. Equally important, he changed the practice from the reading of the law by the minister to the singing of the law by the congregation. This was an act of thanksgiving for the whole congregation.

Throughout history, the preaching of the Word has also explained and encouraged obedience to God in worship. As the Word is carefully explained, and as it is applied to worshipers’ lives individually and communally, it shapes their minds and hearts to act in accord with God’s will. An expository sermon almost always calls one to both trust and obey.

Finally, God’s will for obedient living was also taught in the songs and prayers used in worship. The long history of psalm singing in Reformed churches reinforced the call to obedient living since so many of the psalms celebrate and recite parts of God’s law.

The historical practices of churches in the Reformed tradition support the notion that there are good reasons for regularly incorporating God’s law, in one way or another, in weekly worship. In RW 84 we’ll look at practical ways to do this.

 

Excerpt

Questions for Discussion

  1. What is the general attitude toward the use of the law in your church’s worship?
  2. In the past year, how often have the Ten Commandments been included in your church’s worship? What about other calls to obedient living found in Scripture? Has their use or non-use impacted your community’s worship?
  3. Most of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions (do not do “X”) which imply positive actions (do “Y”). How can your worship include both the prohibitions and a call to positive action? In other words, how do you underscore that obedient living isn’t just about what you should not do, but also about what you should do as a follower of Jesus Christ?

—JB