Worship and the Presence of God
WORSHIP AND THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Think what is involved – personal communication and communion with the living God.
Worship has been hijacked and debased by many today. It is often reduced to a set of preliminaries lasting anything from a half to one hour, usually consisting of repetitive chorus singing, with words that do little to engage the mind. It is triumphalist and sentimental, with protestations of love to God/Jesus but little emphasis on the atonement. There are exceptions, but the statement is sufficiently accurate not to be a caricature. Such worship is usually directed by a ‘worship leader’ crooning into a hand-held microphone. The members of the participating congregation will normally be standing, often with their hands raised – especially when such phrases as ‘we worship’ occur (as they frequently do). It is remarkable how these features can be observed extensively world-wide – but they are mono-cultural in the sense that they are Mid Atlantic. Not infrequently, such worship is characterized by glazed eyes – and indeed by a conviction that this is what worship is all about.
It stands in marked contrast to what (both in the Anglican and Nonconformist traditions) has prevailed from the Reformation onwards. These ‘classical’ forms of worship were interactive – that is, they proceeded on the assumption that there was a mutually responsive encounter taking place between God and men. This was the theological justification of the Nonconformist ‘hymn-sandwich’, as sometimes it is derisively called. It was basically God and Word centred, with structured opportunity for congregational response in hymn, prayer and submissive glad obedience. The same principle governed the compilation of the Anglican liturgy even though its detailed outworking was significantly different.
At its worst this can degenerate into a boring, entirely predictable formality, dominated by a professional who may (or in some cases may not) be slick, mouthing platitudes that leave the heart untouched, and who uses the pulpit very much as a platform for his prejudices. But at its best it can be the most exhilarating experience known to man this side of heaven. The man leading does not obscure the glory of God; the words addressed to the congregation are inspiring and humbling; the response they evoke is heartfelt and genuine; lives are impacted; unbelievers are humbled and converted; praise, whether spoken or sung, is meaningful and hearty.
In what follows I shall limit my discussions to gatherings for worship and will virtually ignore personal and private devotions.
THE NATURE OF WORSHIP
True worship always has two interactive focal points – God and the worshipper. Both of these have elements that are receptive and also outgoing or productive that attach to them.
The distinction between the receptive and outgoing elements as they apply respectively to the God who receives and those who offer worship is
(a) What God receives he does not need but thoroughly deserves, whereas
what we receive is very much needed but totally unmerited.
(b) What he gives is gracious, whereas what we give is dutiful – which
is not to deny that it is enjoyable, heartfelt and ungrudging.
In the best patterns of worship there is this interactive element.
WORSHIP IS OUR HIGHEST PRIVILEGE AND SHOULD BE OUR GREATEST DELIGHT
Think what is involved – personal communication and communion with the living God. This is a contrast infinitely more extreme than the wildest known in a merely human context. All analogies based on the differences between two individuals at opposite ends of the human social spectrum hardly begin to set forth the amazing fact that ‘we who are dust and ashes’ (Gen. 18:27) not only approach the Creator but can do so with joy, confidence and boldness despite the fact that he is ‘of purer eyes than to behold iniquity’ (Hab. 1:13). We may be confident in the assurance that what we are doing pleases God; indeed Psalm 50:23 ‘Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me’ suggests that it even adds to his glory. It is incredible that such an activity should ever be regarded as a drudgery or a burden rather than an unspeakable privilege.
It is worthwhile pursuing the contrast with the human analogy. Many people would regard being invited to Buckingham Palace to a garden party, with the chance of seeing the Queen, or even possibly having a brief conversation with her, as a great privilege. But in worship, even when we come as members of a crowd (which still happens on some occasions!), potentially we are also coming as individuals, not to the remote monarch but to the Lord God Almighty who is also our Heavenly Father. We speak directly to him. He does not engage in polite pleasantries in which he formally enquires as to some peculiar circumstances, which might explain why we have been singled out for interview. His concern is infinite, all-knowing, and tender. And he is able to communicate to us such feelings of assurance and love as may well be indescribable, or to express this in biblical language we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory’ (1 Peter 1:8).
Nothing less than that is what we should be looking and hoping for in each act of worship. (The same could be said with respect to our private devotions, but I am deliberately limiting myself to what we sometimes call ‘public worship’.) To some extent, provided that it does not plunge us into an almost pathological depression, we should be disappointed when our experience of worship falls short of this. God can give us foretastes of heaven – what Isaac Watts expressed when he said, ‘The men of grace have found glory begun below.’
If this could seem to veer in the direction of a hedonistic individualism that regards worship as being the opportunity for each individual ‘to do his own thing’, it can be counterbalanced by the biblical emphasis on the fact that what we do, we do together. Worship biblically is a communal activity. It is significant that the Lord’s Prayer begins with ‘Our Father’ and continues in the pluralistic vein rather than as a pattern of personal
self-centred petitions. The same can be observed in the Psalms ‘I was
glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand’ (Ps. 122:1-2). Likewise 1 Corinthians 14 gives the lie to the heresy that all that matters in communal public worship is that I have a blessing, or that I am entitled to do my bit come what may. The principle of edification of the church (verses 4, 6, 12, 19, 23ff; 26) is supreme.
All true worship is responsive. It must originate in God, in who he is and in what he has done. His very being demands our worship. The angels do not worship him as their Saviour but they praise him for his majesty and power. What he has done, is doing, and will yet do, should further draw forth our praise. To say this is to recognise that there is a tremendously wide range of material available to us which should give rise to our worship. This includes the eternal counsels of the triune God encompassing his infinite wisdom; the power of God evidenced in creation ex nihilo and then in the consequent providential ordering and upholding of all that he has made; his purposes which are yet to be fulfilled. Then there is his supreme glory – the salvation of sinners. As Gadsby put it: ‘In his highest work, redemption, See his glory in a blaze’. his promises to and Fatherly care for his children should also be evocative of praise, thanksgiving and promised devotion on our part. The Book of Revelation gives occasional, but glorious, glimpses of what it will be like to join in the heavenly paeans of praise to the Lamb (Rev 5: 12-14; 19: if, 6f). But all of this is responsive -which means that it is unmerited – a point made by Christ in Luke 17:10, ‘When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.’
WORSHIP AND THE GOSPEL
This then carries the implication that the essence of worship derives from God and not from man. So he, not the worshipper, is the determinative factor. This raises the question of the gospel and worship, which was where the conference began. There is a disturbing trend evident among some undoubtedly knowledgeable and theologically well-informed Christians. They evidence what can amount almost to a condescending, if not contemptuous, attitude to evangelistic services in this respect. They do not regard them as appropriate occasions for mature Christians to engage in meaningful worship, although those still in the spiritual kindergarten may find them helpful! Those of us old enough to remember him would probably be unanimous in saying that the greatest preaching that we ever heard was the evangelistic preaching of D M Lloyd-Jones. It lifted you up to heaven – and yet was mightily effective as an evangelistic tool. Is there even a sense in which unbelievers may be constrained to worship at such times, if only in the overwhelming sense of awe and majesty that they may experience? It parallels in some ways what Christians enjoy when they speak of having a foretaste of heaven. Only in the case of the unbeliever it is a foretaste of hell, inasmuch as they view the majesty and glory of God from the outside having no personal interest in it.
The message of the gospel is surely the deepest and most profound theology revealed in Scripture. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the angels desire or long to look into the things revealed by the gospel (1 Peter 1:12). Its plan, execution and application related as they are to the work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is surely a biblical way of describing this amazing work of redemption. Eph 2:18 summarizes the outworking of this with respect to prayer and worship.
PROGRESSIVE REVELATION AND WORSHIP
Onward and upward must be the way in which to describe the development through the Old and New Testaments of what is sometimes referred to as ‘progressive revelation.’ It is always internally consistent and never self-contradictory. But it builds on what has gone before and leads on to its culmination in the New Testament. The biblical explanation of this is simply that the Old Testament types and shadows were modelled upon that which was yet to come: ‘See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount’ (Heb. 8:5, compare Exod. 25:40).
Yet within this undoubted theological unity there is a decisive element of diversity that is marked not so much by the Old Testament I New Testament distinction as by the pre- and post-Pentecost one. In terms of ecclesiology and worship the Gospels lie essentially on the Old Testament side of that divide. The contrast is truly striking. Until Acts 2 you have temple worship that is detailed, elaborate, closely bound to the priesthood and its accompanying liturgical system of Levitical worship. But from Acts 2:41 onwards the difference is marked. There is no priesthood, save that in which all true believers are members; no sacrificial system, as the once and for all sacrifice of Christ has rendered that obsolete; no holy place, still less a holy of holies with restricted access for one albeit representative man once a year, for now we have ‘boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus’ (Heb. 10:19). The hesitation and fear that must have been one of the hallmarks of the best Old Testament worship has been replaced by boldness (parresia) and full assurance of faith (plerophoria pisteos) (Heb. 10:19,22).
There is no New Testament equivalent of Leviticus. Whatever term you wish to use in order to describe the New Testament ‘minister’ (and that is arguably the best term of all.), you do not call him a priest, save in the sense in which he shares that privilege and function with each and every one of his fellow believers. There are no stated feasts and ceremonial functions such as were characteristic of the Old Testament situation. A new degree of spontaneity seems to have characterized New Testament worship – although we must be careful in stating that lest we simply imply that Old Testament worship was essentially dull, formal, entirely predicable and to that extent unspiritual. But it is worth noting that those segments of Christendom that try to reason biblically for an elaborate and fixed liturgical pattern of worship have to do so either by arguing from the Old Testament practice, or else by claiming ecclesiastical power to impose such forms and structures as part of an ongoing revelatory authority residing in the church. Both arguments take a hop, skip and a jump over the evidence of the New Testament.
There are aspects of this legitimate biblical progression that are very relevant to the whole concept of worship. It could, I maintain, be argued that part of that development is expressed in terms of a deepened spiritual as opposed to carnal element in worship; allied to this is an intensified and heightened intellectual element. Thus the contrast between Old Covenant and New Covenant as worked out, for example, by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 4 and more extensively by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, operates on the assumption that the Old Covenant, while good and beneficial, was relatively speaking juvenile. It was designed for childhood rather than maturity and was always intended to be temporary as opposed to permanent.
A CONTEMPORARY REGRESSION
Does this have anything to say to our age which, in many evangelical circles as well as in more obviously worldly ones, seems bent upon regressing in the more primitive and less intellectual, more physical and less spiritual directions? The trend can be observed in areas of secular music and culture generally speaking, as well as in the so-called visual arts and the media at large. To me it seems to be not only tragic, but also a reversal of the whole movement to be observed in the biblical revelation, that so many sections of evangelicalism are in the forefront of the parallel phenomenon that can be traced in the churches. What by some is alleged to be a legitimate reaction against a hyper-intellectual approach that was bound up with middle-class values rather than biblical principles is in reality a capitulation to what used to be called worldliness. But now it masquerades under the aegis of being an allegedly more holistic approach. In the New Testament there is a highly developed emphasis on the truth and the use of the mind to which God-given truth has been presented. Hence the intellectual depth of the epistles, written as they were to churches composed of very ordinary people, and no doubt understood by them, as they were enabled by the Holy Spirit.
I find it difficult to allow that the gospel which has succeeded in elevating the tone and the intellectual capabilities of those societies that it has penetrated, should now have become a vehicle for this reversal from the intellectual and spiritual to the physical and carnal. That it is taking place in the most developed parts of the world and amongst what ostensibly are its most intelligent sections is even more perplexing. The point could be illustrated both from many university Christian Unions and also middle class congregations who often seem intent on operating in reverse mode to the apostle Paul who maintained that when he became a man he put away childish things.
Undoubtedly one of the major factors in what, not unfairly, could be described as the revolution in worship – which is an ongoing phenomenon of the last few generations – has been a hedonistic element. ‘I like it; my husband likes it; and I assume God likes it’ (which was actually how a woman once justified a particular practice in a non-worship context) would seem to be the philosophy behind much of this so-called revolution. We enjoy it, therefore we hope, or presume, that God does also. In fairness it should be pointed out that it is no answer to this argument to respond, ‘I don’t like it, and therefore I presume God shares my opinion.’ In other words we need a higher principle than that something is acceptable culturally in order to justify a theology of worship. As can be demonstrated from our own constituency of Evangelicalism, culture is very much a nose of wax that can be pinched, twisted, inflated into any desired shape. Culture may claim to be contemporary or historic – and both elements have their importance – but in neither case does it carry conclusive weight in the argument. While it is clearly foolish to become so ossified in the traditions of the past that you bear a marked resemblance to relics in a geological museum, it is equally wrong (although not so instantaneously
recognisable) to borrow contemporary patterns from a world that is ever fundamentally antithetical to the whole ethos of the gospel.
One response to this is to query whether ‘order’ matters at all. Again the extremes are predictable, ranging from the formalism of the worst and most enervating variety, to the random chaos that ensues when each service becomes something of a potluck occasion – or, to change the metaphor, one in which you are dealt a quite unpredictable hand of cards which have been shuffled indiscriminately since the last time they were used. You do not have to be deeply into ‘liturgy’ to come into the former category or a card-carrying charismatic to belong to the latter.
THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Now devotees of such positions often confuse both of these aberrations with the manifestation of the presence of God. To the one group, dignity, with its accompanying hushed tones bordering on quietness, the absence of intrusive emotionalism and possibly a certain architectural style and even a ‘dim religious light,’ are the likely concomitants of God’s presence. To the other it is more probable that the contradiction of these things is presumptive evidence that God is with them. Both, I suggest, are wrong. There are other factors which come into consideration at this point. Aesthetics, psychological elements that may influence how value judgements are made, historic tradition and maybe other issues also come into play here. In fairness it could be argued that if there is any area of theological experience that is ‘better felt than telt,’ this is it.
At several points the Scriptures give some indication that there have been occasions when what is being experienced is the manifest presence of God. Immediately this confronts us with a number of difficulties. First of all, how do you meaningfully distinguish between God’s omnipresence and his presence? Related to this is its sometimes unrecognised corollary – the absence of God.
Omnipresence, regarded as one of God’s essential attributes, is surely taught in both Old and New Testaments. Psalm 139 contains a classic statement of it: ‘Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’ (vv. 7-10). ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord,’ is the way in which the same truth is expressed in Jeremiah (23:23i). Paul was making basically the same point in Athens when he alluded to one of the Greek poets who wrote: ‘(God is) not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:271′). Similarly, he speaks of the ascended Christ as filling all things (Eph 4:10).
PARTICULAR MANIFESTATIONS OF GOD’S PRESENCE
But, the concept of omnipresence stated thus is essentially non-experiential as far as mankind is concerned. However, from the earliest portions of the Old Testament there are many instances given of this omnipresent God somehow in a meaningful way demonstrating his presence so that an individual, or indeed whole communities, experience that presence. The earliest hint of this must be in Gen. 3:8 where Adam and Eve ‘heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.’ Significantly it is added that ‘Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.’
The awesomeness of the Lord’s presence is a factor that soon becomes dominant, as for example in Gen. 15:12 when ‘an horror of great darkness fell upon (Abram).’ This almost becomes the characteristic feature of the several subsequent manifestations of God’s presence as they are described later in the Old Testament from Sinai onwards (Exod. 19:1 8ff, cf. Heb. 12:18-21). The Psalmist picks it up (Ps. 18:6-15). Isaiah experienced it (Isa. 6:1-5). Habakkuk (3:2-16) and Daniel (10:4-9) also refer to the same phenomenon.
Some of these instances are highly individualistic and yet there is an emphatic strand of teaching that relates such manifestations of God’s glory not just to individuals but to the worshipping community of the Lord’s people. A reference that basically constitutes something of a link between these two aspects is Exodus 32-34 where Moses, an individual, covets the accompanying presence of the Lord, but not merely for himself. ‘For wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? is it not in that thou goest with us? so shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth’ (Exod. 33:16). The pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night becomes the visible proof of God’s accompanying presence with Israel in the wilderness. Significantly that cloud – the shekinah glory – is peculiarly linked with the tabernacle: ‘And on the day that the tabernacle was reared up the cloud covered the tabernacle’ (Num. 9:15). The remainder of the chapter (vv.
16-23) and the conclusion of the following chapter (10:33-36) stress the unique importance of this. What is surely being said is that ultimately the only distinguishing mark of the people of God is his presence with them.
In line with what we have noted earlier about the Old Testament describing the period of infancy of the Lord’s people, we would expect the essentially physical aspect of this to diminish and eventually to disappear. Consequently in the New Testament, apart from the temporary phenomenon described for us in Acts 2:2f., there is no continuation of this. This, of course, fits the expected pattern in which blessings that in the Old Testament have a specifically physical aspect – the Promised Land, military victory or defeat, longevity and prosperity – have spiritual equivalents in the New Testament. But the important thing to remember is that it is possible for the infinite God, whose glory fills the heavens, somehow to localize his presence to a particular place and person(s). This becomes something infinitely pleasant and memorable, as David expressed so clearly: ‘O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary’ (Ps. 63:1,2). A later psalm gives expression to the same
principles: ‘How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord, my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. Every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee’ (Ps. 84:11, 7, l0f).
The descriptions given to us in I Kings 8:l0f and 2 Chr. 5:131, 7:lff. of the dedication of Solomon’s temple are likewise important in building up this Old Testament picture of the Lord’s presence being manifested in remarkable ways on occasions.
At this point we can begin to gather together the observable human effects of these remarkable visitations of God. It would be wrong to describe these in terms simply of a sort of paralysing awe, even fear and terror. Certainly there were elements of these present. But such experiences – although in the case of the dedication of the Temple it resulted in an interruption of the prepared liturgical proceedings – also led on to prayer, sacrificial worship, sung praise and great joy and happiness among the people (see 2 Chi. 7:1 – 11).
Before we leave the Old Testament one other point needs to be made, namely, that God is a God of surprises – as Elijah discovered at Horeb when the Lord met him not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13).
When we turn to the New Testament the nativity passages immediately confront us with the fact that the incarnation means that God has favoured mankind with his presence. The very person of the baby born in Bethlehem is proof of this fact. One of his names – Emmanuel – spells it out for us (Matt. 1:23, cf Isa. 7:14). Zacharias’ prophetic words earlier made the same point, ‘God hath visited and redeemed his people, the dayspring from on high hath visited us’ (Luke 1:68,78). Perhaps it was what they regarded as the likely termination of this visitation that was one of the f actors in plunging the disciples into the depression that Christ set about alleviating on the eve of his crucifixion. Earlier in his ministry he had indicated to them that his continuing presence was something that they could be assured of and that would not be dependent upon his bodily presence with them (Matt. 18:20). No doubt at this time they understood neither what he was saying, not its continuing implications. But he had said it, and in due course the promised Holy Spirit brought it to their remembrance. Thus his Upper Room discourse placed great emphasis on this fact of the Lord being present with his people despite his physical absence from them. The promise is integrally bound up with the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus makes clear in John 14:16-26. The words that must have staggered the men to whom they were originally spoken, he assured them that the very best thing that could happen to and for them would be that he be taken physically from them. Otherwise the Holy Spirit would not come to them (John 16:7). This led him on to make the somewhat paradoxical comment that his leaving them would result in great sorrow, but that this would in due course be turned into joy. And in the light of what he has been saying earlier in that discourse, he must have been referring to more than just his resurrection appearances to his hitherto despondent disciples.
Matthew concludes his gospel with the promise of Jesus prior to his ascension, ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’ (Matt. 28:20). Clearly the message has got through to the disciples and to their companions in the early church, so that never do we find them, either individually or corporately, bemoaning the fact that he is no longer present with them physically. They enjoy the reality of the promised Holy Spirit. True, there is a ‘presence’ of the Lord to which they look forward with great eagerness; but it is the parousia when he who is now present with them only spiritually, will also be with them bodily. That hope, however, in no way detracts from their present joy. Nor does it reduce their present experience to some poverty stricken level that evacuates the promises Jesus had made and reduces them to the level of mere formality.
There are clear indications, therefore, in Acts and in the epistles that their church meetings, generally speaking, were marked by rich fellowship and that not merely with one another but with their God and Saviour. John explicitly makes the point: ‘Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3). The scene described in Acts 4:23-31 would seem to be not untypical of the Jerusalem church. To judge by the descriptions that Paul gives of his preaching and its accompanying blessing, this was something that the Gentile churches knew as well. He preached ‘in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Cor. 2:4); his gospel came ‘not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance’ (1 Thess. 1:5). Peter is surely referring to the same thing when he refers to ‘them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven’ (1 Peter 1:12). A few verses previously he has been able to speak with confidence about the love that his readers have for the Lord Jesus Christ, together with their ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’ (1 Peter 1:8). In his second epistle his reference back to the never to be forgotten time spent on the Mount of Transfiguration does not fall into the category of sentimental nostalgia for past experiences, the remembrance of which mocks a present barrenness. They have full knowledge of him (epignosis), even though they need to know him more , which surely is the same thing that Paul is asserting of himself in Philippians 3:8-14.
THE NEW TESTAMENT AND TODAY
One of the difficulties in handling a subject like this arises in trying to relate present day church life and experience to that of the New Testament. In particular, when we try to understand and expound the highly experiential language that characterized church life in the New Testament, we can very easily be at risk of reading it through a filter provided by our somewhat different level of spiritual experience. The problem in effect becomes one of deciding which is to be the norm – what we experience or what they did. It becomes even more acute when viewed through the eyes of phlegmatic observers whose upper lips have been conditioned to stiffness from their earliest years! Nor is the difficulty made any easier when some of this latter category suddenly abandon their former restraints and seemingly go overboard in a welter of unrestrained juvenile emotionalism. What can then be demonstrated by those thus ‘liberated’ seems to many to be a travesty of what was real and genuine in the New Testament.
The potential disparity between what commonly is the case now and what indisputably was the case then is one that frequently has been grasped by some of our hymn-writers. In effect they are expressing in hymnological language what was the burden of Moses’ prayer in Exodus 32-33. Take the words of Charles Wesley as but one example:
Present we know Thou art.
But O Thyself reveal!
Words like that are misunderstood if they are taken as the poetical rantings of someone who is more at home in an introspective mysticism than in the world of biblical theology.
The presence of God and the sense of the presence of God must neither be irrevocably separated nor misleadingly confused. Whether or not we feel it to be the case, there must be no doubt that the Lord Jesus Christ always keeps his promises. In this realm, as in the whole of our lives as Christians, we must walk by faith and not be sight. It is true that neither our salvation nor the measure of our blessing is dependent upon our feelings. But it is a non sequitur to reason from that to the conclusion that our feelings do not matter. The important thing is to go to heaven; but the better thing is to go to heaven comfortably!
Undoubtedly there are dangers that accompany emotion. It is usually but a short step from it to emotionalism, and that, when it is artificially contrived (as it often is in some evangelical circles), is one of the devil’s greatest counterfeits.
The felt presence of God is something that can and should be looked for, longed for, prayed for. But it is never something that can be humanly created. Where it is evident, there is an unmistakable and undeniable argument regarding the reality of God and the authenticity of what he is doing in that particular service. Is not this the substance of Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 14:24ff? It would appear that Paul is saying that the unbelievers (apistoi) or unlearned (idiotes) will be convinced and will worship God, acknowledging the very presence of God whom perhaps formerly they had denied – ‘and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.’
One of the inherent tendencies of evangelicalism in decline is to drift in the direction of a form of Sandemanianism in which intellectual acceptance is equated with heartfelt confession. I think I would be prepared to argue that such a condition may well be reaching epidemic proportions in much modern evangelicalism. Strangely it may also go hand in hand with a wild emotionalism, which in some circles is mistaken for New Testament reality. I suggest that the answer to both conditions lies in a proper grasp of this concept of the presence of God.
In order to develop this point I would like to expand on the problem of what a church is to do when she is in a condition in which she knows little or nothing of the felt, comfortable influences of the Holy Spirit conveying to her some experience of God’s manifested presence. What she should not do is to despair. Secondly, she is not to settle for the barren condition in which she finds herself as being the norm and thus settle back into a sort of hopeless and faithless complacency. Rather she is to thank God for what she knows and believes and yet at the same time to ask Isaac Watts’
And shall we then for ever live At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee, And Thine to us so great?
Therein begins to lie the answer, as Watts continues;
Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
With all Thy quickening powers;
Come, shed abroad the Saviour’s love
And that shall quicken ours.
This will ensure that she will not settle for those humanly constructed artefacts or devilish inspired delusions that might present themselves as the immediate panacea for all her ills.
Spurgeon, in quite another context, used to maintain that with all its potential dangers and deficiencies, Independency was the best form of church government. Whether or not we agree with his assessment of New Testament ecclesiology is not my point. It was the argument with which he attempted to substantiate that position that I found interesting. Independency, so he reasoned, had no artificial props on which it could rely in hard times. Like the little girl in the nursery rhyme who, ‘When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid,’ so it was with Independency. You could not disguise its failure. This should then lead to a calling upon God to remedy the situation even as the people of God humbled themselves before him. The parallel, if not quite exact, is sufficiently similar to be apposite. There can be no substitute for that manifested presence of God which is always a biblical possibility for the people of God. When it is not being experienced they should humbly seek him for it, not neglecting their ongoing duties, nor denying their present blessings, but recognizing that there is always infinitely more with their God and Father who desires fellowship with those redeemed by the blood of his Son and regenerated by the work of his Spirit.
WORD AND SPIRIT
It will have become clear in the course of this paper that I am seeking to argue for a renewed emphasis on what I would affirm to be a biblical conjunction of the Word and Spirit. Could one of the reasons – possibly the main one – for the contemporary poverty of our churches lie at the door of those of us who have been called to exercise a preaching ministry? That accusation may sound harsh, even unkind, but I suspect that there is too much truth in it for it simply to be brushed aside.
What is preaching and how must it be done? The greater proportion by far of the last century witnessed a struggle between what could conveniently be summarized under the term ‘liberalism’ and a largely decadent evangelicalism. At best the latter was often simplistic and usually on the retreat. But then there was a change. Not only was the gospel largely recovered, but a new boldness was acquired in its proclamation. The doctrinal riches of a former age began to be rediscovered and many of our pulpits became places from which the truth was proclaimed in a way that had not been known, literally for years. For this we should give unreserved praise and thanksgiving to God.
But the story is not entirely one of sweetness and light. Signs have not been wanting that in many situations an evangelical doctrinal intellectualism has emerged that seems to believe that so long as the truth is preached instead of error, blessing will ensue. But it has not done so and the nation at large remains untouched.
In parallel with this, if running somewhat later in its time scale, has been the emergence of what can loosely be described as ‘the charismatic movement.’ I deliberately use the phrase without prejudice as something of a descriptive and blanket term. Particularly amongst men of a reformed persuasion there was often a reaction, not to say an aversion, to this. Sadly, whatever be the rights and wrongs of this attitude as a theological judgment (and it is not my purpose to develop that at this point), the undoubted effect was to produce at the very least a suspicion of anything that looked for this ‘extra’ upon the preaching. It would have been a fate worse than theological death to be dismissed as a crypto-charismatic in some reformed circles – witness the disparaging and dismissive way in which the views of Lloyd-Jones in this area have been criticized.
I believe that these have been contributory factors to the decline in preaching. Where are today’s preachers? It will not do for us to take refuge in a misuse of the sovereignty of God who alone can raise up men to preach and send them forth. Why is he not doing so? Do we understand what preaching is and what it can and should be? Or do we assume that orthodox commenting with apt illustrations for not too long a period of time, lest the hearers tune out, is what Peter meant when he spoke of men preaching ‘with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven’?
If you believe, as I think you should, that the sermon should be the climactic act of worship as far as both preacher and congregation are concerned, then there will be implications, ‘spin-offs’ if you want to be colloquial, as far as the rest of the service is concerned. It will not be that someone will suddenly hit on the twenty-first century liturgical formula that will solve all our problems and resolve all our differences. But there will be a pervading sense of the presence of the Lord that is largely absent from many of out present day services.
Whether I am describing the preparation for revival or revival itself I am not sure – and in any case it is immaterial. Without some such visitation I see no hope for ultimate progress for the churches of our land. Well-intentioned evangelical schemes, courses, programmes, may have their place, but they are not the answer. Still less are the abundant gimmicks that seem endemic to the evangelical mind in a time of decline. We need what has always been the unmistakable hallmark of true revival – a manifested presence of God that is sensed and experienced. Archibald Alexander of the old Princeton has expressed its effects better than most:
“In such revivals there is great solemnity and silence. The convictions of sin are deep and humbling: the justice of God in the condemnation of the sinner is felt and acknowledged; every other refuge but Christ is abandoned; the heart is first made to feel its own impenetrable hardness; but when least expected, it dissolves under a grateful sense of God’s goodness, and Christ’s love; light breaks in upon the soul either by a gradual dawning, or by a sudden flash; Christ is revealed through the gospel, and a firm and often a joyful confidence of salvation through him is produced; a benevolent, forgiving, meek, humble and contrite spirit predominates-the love of God is shed abroad – and with some, joy unspeakable and full of glory, fills the soul. A spirit of devotion is enkindled. The word of God becomes exceedingly precious. Prayer is the exercise in which the soul seems to be in its proper element, because in it God is approached, and his presence felt, and beauty seen: and the new born soul lives by breathing after the knowledge of God, after communion with God, and after conformity to his will. Now also springs up in the soul an inextinguishable desire to promote the glory of God…” (W.B.Sprague, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, reprinted 1959, Banner of Truth, London, Appendix, p. 4f. Letter from Archibald Alexander)
The conviction that our God is the one who can produce that, must surely needs possess us and drive us to our knees until he does so.
GRAHAM HARRISON. Newport, South Wales.
Hope of the Church October 15, 2021
To help us in the dealings of our lives we should have such a conception of God as not to limit him in our thoughts. When we are in extremity we must not tie him to this thing or to that thing. He can make matter out of nothing. Why should we limit the unlimited […]
The Prayer Meeting September 3, 2021
Why bother coming to the prayer meeting? In the pecking order of many congregations, it is somewhere below the much-lamented evening service. In the priorities of too many Christians, it seems to have little value. It’s the one we can afford to miss. It’s the one to which we don’t, or maybe wouldn’t, take our […]