Worth a Read

“Why a Liturgical Church?”

People are shopping in the religious marketplace. Some are committed Christians, others are casual seekers. Americans are natural born shoppers. We love to peep in the windows and handle the merchandise. We’re always on the prowl for something new. It sure beats commitment. Church shopping can be a spiritually debilitating occupation. Done for two long and it can leave you much more confused than when you started. For that reason,  I’m going to give you a few things to think about on your shopping trip – twelve in case you’re counting. Why 12? No particular reason except that 12 happens to be one of those biblical “lucky numbers” like 3, 7, 10, and 40. Twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, twelve foundations under heavenly Jerusalem.  Bear with me…..it should make sense in the end.

1.      Is the church Christ-centered?

A house without a foundation cannot stand just like a wheel without a hub cannot spin (Hebrews 11:8-10, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11Luke 6:46-49) It might look neat, sound interesting and even smell good, but if things are even slightly askew, there is no hope of making it work.

So it must be with the church you are looking for. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of the sinner, without the belief in Jesus Christ as our very source of salvation, without the only Son of God as the single foundation of everything the church teaches, preaches and practices, there is no Christianity.

There are many churches who claim Christianity but who lack the very fundamental beliefs that are necessary for any Christian church. It is best to avoid any church who would teach something contrary.

Any Christian church you choose (and here I mean where two or more are gathered in Christ’s name)   must have its very foundation on Christ. It’s not about how much we love Jesus, but about how Jesus loves us to death….literally. It’s not about what Jesus would do but about what Jesus has already done.

2.      Does the congregation teach that sinners are justified (declared righteous) by God’s grace (undeserved favor) alone through faith (conviction) for the sake of Christ Jesus who paid the penalty for our sin with His won life?

As amazing as it sounds, the truth is that we are seen as innocent in the eyes of God thanks to the most unselfish act of His Son on the cross. This is the central teaching of Christianity. Without it, a church can’t really be called, in any true sense, a “Christian” church, no matter how religious it might otherwise appear. You might hear many religious and even inspirational things during the course of a service or celebration, but if you did not hear the central message of Jesus Christ death on the cross, rising from the dead and reigning forever in heaven at the right hand of the Father for the forgiveness of sins and for the sake, pardon, peace, forgiveness, and eternal life that we as believers share, then what you heard wasn’t distinctly Christian. A church without Christ is as useless as a book without a topic.

3.      Does the congregation distinguish God’s commands, threats, and punishments from His promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus Christ?

Ever read the Bible and wonder whether God is talking out of two sides of His mouth, or even if He has two mouths? We call that the Law and the Gospel. The Law is what God demands from us – absolute perfection, not just a good try. The Law is a mirror, reflecting how bad things really are with us. It also instructs and guides us, and serves to curb some truly bad behavior,  it is always working to accuse you and make you feel bad about yourself. That’s probably why people don’t like to see the Ten Commandments in public places.

But don’t despair! The Law is not God’s last Word. You’re a sinner, that’s true. And Jesus is the Savior of sinners! That’s even truer. The Gospel is “good news.” (That’s what the word “gospel” means – good news.) The good news is that Jesus bore your sin in His body on the cross. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it in His death (John 3:16-17). There is nothing we can do to save ourselves, and there is nothing we need to do. Jesus has already done it all – for you and for everyone else. He said so when He died. “It is finished” (John 19:30). He calls you to believe that, trust Him, take Him at His Word and live in His freedom.

What about good works? Don’t we have to do something to please God? Well, yes and no. We don’t do good works in order to please God. We can’t. But we want to do good works because we believe we are already pleasing to God on account of Jesus. Works always follow faith. When we believe that God is at peace with us in the death of Jesus, we’re free to do what pleases Him. The Christian life is not about trying to become pleasing to God, but serving God who is pleased with us in His Son Jesus. It’s not like the Army slogan, “Be all that you can be.” It’s more like, “Be all that God has already made you to be.”

4. Does the congregation believe, teach, and confess the Triune God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – three Persons in one divine Being, as the only true God?

Basic, but it needs to be said. Many so-called “mainline” churches pray to a “Father-Mother” god or a Creator-Redeemer-Sanctifier god in the interest of inclusivity and political correctness. This is more than a matter of words. If a church can’t say “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” something has gone terribly wrong. The historic creeds and liturgy, if they are taken seriously, will help keep things in line.

(From Creation.com)Worshipping the true God requires at least minimal knowledge about who He is. And while none of us can understand God completely, He has revealed some truths about Himself in Scripture in a way we can understand. As Christians, we should want to understand God’s revelation of His own character as clearly as possible. The Trinity is at the heart of God’s self-revelation.

5What does the church teach concerning the Bible?

Let’s be clear. The Bible is the Word of God. Period! It doesn’t just contain the Word of God or become the Word of God when you believe it. It is the Word of God, apparent warts and all. The Scriptures are inspired (literally breathed out) from God (2 Timothy 3:14-16). They’re not intended to make you healthy or wealthy but wise to your salvation through faith in Jesus. The Scriptures are useful for doctrine, for rebuking (and we all need a little rebukin’ now and then), for correction and for training. Watch how a church uses the Bible, especially those uncomfortable passages. If they’re picking and choosing, they’re probably not telling the whole story.

Is the church backing up what they believe with Scripture or are they coming to conclusions despite it? Are they teaching something that has no basis in Scripture for the sake of culture? Are they coming to reasonable conclusions based on Scripture even if there is no explicit proof (infant baptism for instance) or are they formulating their beliefs on what “seems” good or what “feels” right? Every Word of the Christian Bible is inspired by God, if the church you are looking into tells you anything different, they are best to be avoided.

6. Does the congregation believe, teach and confess that all people are by nature sinful in the eyes of God?

Yes, I know that all that “poor, miserable sinner” stuff can be a real blow to the self-esteem, but denial doesn’t change the truth. Churches that deny we are sinners to the core tend to push for self improvement as the way to salvation, as though you have within you the power to change and improve. Remember, we’re not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners.

7. Is the church confessional and creedal?

A creed is a formal statement of belief, a church’s public confession of what it believes, teaches, and confesses.

“Doctrine divides” and “Deeds not creeds” you say. Yeah, I read the bumper stickers too. The Christian faith is not something you make up as you go along. And it doesn’t come through private one-on-one conversations with God while driving on the freeway. The Ethiopian had the company of Philip along with the Scriptures in his chariot (Acts 8:26-40). And he wasn’t driving the chariot!

The Christian faith is “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). In other words, what we believe is what Christians have always believed since Pentecost. Look and listen for things like the Apostles’ Creed, which goes all the way back to the 2nd century. Or the Nicene Creed (AD 325). Or even the Athanasian Creed (5th century). Lutherans have a whole book called the Book of Concord which was pulled together in 1580. It’s our public statement of what we believe and don’t believe. Now that’s confessional!

You say, “But that’s a bunch of old stuff written by dead guys. What about today?” I say, “Look. The church has been around longer than Billy Graham, Dwight Moody and the last crusade at Anaheim Stadium”. We’re talking almost 2000 years of history here. As the old saying goes, “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat its errors.” The old creeds keep us from reinventing the faith and praying to our “Father-Mother in heaven” or whatever other paganism is in style these days. If a church can’t put down in writing what it believes and teaches, maybe it doesn’t believe anything at all.

8. What opportunities for teaching does the congregation have?

Disciples are made by baptizing in the triune Name and teaching (Matthew 28:19-20). Not one or the other, and not in any particular order. Baptism occurs once in a lifetime; teaching takes a whole lifetime. You don’t need a weekly calendar crammed full of targeted small group Bible studies (“The Soccer Mom’s Bible Study”), but a steady diet of Scripture and doctrine for young and old alike is a good sign.

9. Is the church sacramental?

OK, since this is a Lutheran Church, this is going to come from a Lutheran perspective. I admit that. But read it through and by the end, it might even make sense.

“Sacraments” are practices established by God in which God reveals Himself to be gracious to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Don’t be surprised that God works through rituals (a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order). He’s always expected something from us in the form of rituals. Even in the Garden, there was a ritual. Don’t eat from a certain tree in the middle. Eat from any other tree, including the Tree of Life, but not that tree. Actions based on a requirement = ritual. In the Old Testament, God worked through the ritual blood sacrifices of the temple and the ritual of circumcision. In the New Testament, He works through Baptism, the preached Word, and the Lord’s Supper. God is sacramental; so are we. That’s how He has chosen to deal with us.

As long as we’re talking sacraments and since this is a Lutheran blog, let’s talk baby baptism, shall we? Sacramental churches baptize their babies. This isn’t some kind of weird medieval magic or religious superstition. It’s simply the recognition that God promises to work through Baptism to make Jesus’ death and resurrection personally our own. In Baptism, we are individually and personally buried with Jesus in His death (Romans 6:4). It’s our washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). It’s also important to remember that it is a gift from God to us, not the other way around.

Of course, Baptism alone does not save you. We are saved by God’s grace through faith (Acts 16:29-33, John 3:16, Romans 10:8-13), but It is faith that brings us to baptism. “But infants can’t have faith Pastor.” Be careful not to limit God. It is the Holy Spirit alone who works faith in our hearts. Don’t limit God by saying that He cannot do something until we understand it. It’s when we try to form God into our own image, that we lead ourselves to trouble. God is not human, he is not limited like you and me. Part of having faith is in the understanding that God can do what seems impossible to us.

Baby baptism has been around since Jesus commanded His disciples to “make disciples of all the nations” (Mt 28:19-20) and the first households were baptized (Acts 16:29-33 “and he was baptized at once, he and all his family”). Anyone who says, “The Bible doesn’t say to baptize babies,” is arguing from a vacuum of silence. The Bible doesn’t say not to baptize babies, either or even to “dedicate” them.

It is fair to note that only occasionally in the early centuries did anyone challenge baby baptism, but they were challenging the status quo not a novelty. It wasn’t until the 14th century and the Reformation that some fringe groups started baptizing the already baptized because of their disapproval of the practices of Roman Catholics; hence the name “Anabaptists” (ana = again, baptizo = to baptize, anabaptist = to baptize again). The Anabaptists are the theological forerunners of many protestant Christians in America today.

What a church says about baby baptism tells you a lot about what it believes concerning salvation. If salvation is a transaction in which God does His part and we in turn do our part, then baby baptism makes no sense at all. Better to wait until the kid is old enough to decide and seal the deal for himself.

But if salvation is entirely God’s doing, accomplished through the death of Jesus on the cross and given to us freely, gratis, by grace, without our works or decisions, while we are still spiritually stone cold dead (Ephesians 2:4), then baby baptism makes all the sense in the world. The child does nothing except get wet and kick a little bit; the Holy Spirit does it all. “By grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesian 2:8-9).

As long as I’m tooting the sacramental horn, a few words for the wise about the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper consists of bread and wine together with the words of Jesus spoken on the night He was betrayed: “This is my body given for you.” “This is my blood shed for you.” You heard Him right. The bread is Jesus body, and the wine is Jesus blood. Not represents, symbolizes, signifies, stands for, or any other clever way of ducking the word “is.” Don’t ask me how, I don’t know, it just is. I don’t have to understand, I just need to trust that God means what He says. “Is” still means “is” in sacramental churches.

Sacramental churches tend to have the Lord’s Supper frequently, usually weekly or even more. That’s because they actually believe you receive something important, namely, the body and the blood of our Savior Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. If all you get is bread and wine and a fond memory of Jesus, you may as well go to brunch. The bread and wine are usually better at brunch than in church anyway.

Sacramental churches usually tend to practice some form of “closed communion.” It tends to come with the confessional territory. Some congregations are fairly open, others are tight as a drum. Some ask that you speak with the pastor before you approach the altar, others want you to take 100 hours of classroom instruction and a driving test. The point is that the Lord’s Supper is not a “y’all come down if the Spirit moves you” kind of meal. Neither was the Passover that came before it.

I recommend that church shoppers refrain from communing until they settle into a place for a while. The Lord’s Supper is so much more than a special time with Jesus. It’s a deeply communal form of worship, where believers are visibly united with each other in the one Body of Christ. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians. 10:17).

When you decide to join the other members at the table, take the time to prepare your heart with the same spirit of forgiveness the Lord offers us and come to understand that the Lord is offering you his very body and blood, the ultimate gift (His body) for the greatest purpose (forgiveness).

If you desire to receive the Lord’s Supper as a guest in a congregation, please be so kind as to introduce yourself to the pastor beforehand and be prepared for some meaningful conversation. Imagine sitting down to dinner, and all of a sudden, a total stranger comes through the door, sits down at your table, and asks you to pass the mashed potatoes. I think you’d at least want to know his name, wouldn’t you? So it is at many churches. It’s good to know who you’re spending such an special time with.

10.  Is the church liturgical?

Smells and bells versus praise bands and projection screens, everything from Gregorian chant to Jesus-Palooza 2003. Welcome to Worship Wars!

Liturgical churches use a fixed order of service that’s more or less repeated from Sunday to Sunday. The repetition has been going on now for almost 2000 years, so it has a pretty good head of liturgical steam, if not smoke, behind it. Liturgical churches tend to use a book or some kind of printed order of service that wasn’t made up from scratch on Friday.

Though it’s often called “traditional worship” by those who engage in “contemporary worship,” that’s really only half the truth. Liturgical worship is historic worship, the way Christians have been worshipping for nearly 2000 years. Some of the phrases of the liturgy go all the way back to the New Testament. Liturgical worship is also biblical worship, not in the sense that the Bible demands we worship this way, but that nearly every word of the liturgy is a quotation from Scripture. Liturgical worship is also Christocentric worship, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness and life of the sinner right in the middle of everything. That’s the important one, remember?

Liturgical services are usually two part affairs. There’s the service of the Word, which consists of readings from Scripture and a sermon on one or more of the readings. And there’s the service of the Sacrament, or Lord’s Supper. Hymns and psalms are sprinkled in, along with the creed and a few other things like the offering. Historic liturgy, like decent red wine, is an acquired taste, especially for us brain damaged Americans whose fingers are always on the remote. But hang with it long enough, and you too can learn the age old new song of salvation along with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.

“Do you have to worship this way,” people always ask me. Not necessarily, many liturgical churches, such as this one, have “blended” (elements of traditional mixed with contemporary)or even “contemporary” services. The basic parts of liturgy should still be there, but it’s done in a more contemporary way.

What you won’t find is twenty minutes of music followed by a sermon followed by 20 minutes of music. There are elements within the liturgy that are so important and beautiful that it makes sense to do them every Sunday, they are that special.

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).

11. Is the congregation in fellowship with other Christian congregations or does it stand alone?

Watch out for the “Lone Rangers” of religion, especially if they claim some “new revelation” or special teaching that no one else has. A new teaching is probably an old heresy recycled. The prophet Elijah once thought he was the only true believer left in the land of Israel. He was off by 6,999 (1 Kings 19:18).

(adapted by Pastor Dan from an article written by Pastor William Cwirla)