Sensual Worship – A Sign of Impending Apostasy
When interest in the churches begins to centre round the visual and the sensual it is commonly a sign of impending apostasy. By ‘sensual’ I mean that which appeals to the senses of man (sight, smell, hearing), as opposed to ‘spirit’, that is, the capacity that belongs to those born of the Spirit of God. Hence the antithesis, ‘sensual, having not the Spirit’ (Jude 19). ‘Sensual’ is also translated ‘natural’ or ‘worldly’; the meaning is the same. It does not take regeneration to give the sensual or the aesthetic a religious appeal to the natural man or woman.
In the Old Testament the people of God were in measure taught by their senses as God imposed the form of worship. As a check against any misuse of that means of teaching no additions to or subtractions from it were allowed. But with the finished work of Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, a momentous change took place. The church was raised to the higher privilege of worship in ‘spirit and truth’ (John 4:24). She belongs to the ‘Jerusalem which is above’ (Gal. 4:26).
In the words of John Owen, ‘the naked simplicity of gospel institutions’ was established in the place of ‘the old, glorious worship of the temple’; Levitical choirs, incense, vestments, etc. – all were gone. Yet not gone permanently; for as church and world gradually came together in the rise of the Papacy, worship that appealed to the senses was reintroduced. Presuming on Old Testament practice, what the gospel had ended in the apostolic age was restored, and the difference brought in by Pentecost disappeared.1 Instead there developed a form of worship in Roman Catholicism which made impressions on the senses at the natural level and which did not need the Holy Spirit.
In the words of Richard Bennett, long a Roman priest, ‘The ritual, symbolical richness of the sacramental life of the Church, to a great extent, meets the human need for transcendence.’2 It does no more than that. The observation of W. H. Griffith Thomas, writing on ‘Spiritual Worship’, is true:
It is the universal experience of Christian people that the more the senses are attracted, fascinated, and occupied, the less room there is for the action of the soul. The teaching of Christian History points very clearly to the fact that simplicity of outward ceremonial has been usually unaccompanied by the reality of the inward spirit of worship.3
This is where the neglect of church history and Scripture has serious consequences for many contemporary evangelical churches. In the 1960s, at a time when the churches were losing their hold on young people, it was believed that a new way of renewing contact with them was to be learned from the contemporary culture. Music appeals to all, and why not make use of the new style of music and accompaniments which had become so popular? After all, music has to be neutral, so why not make it an ally?4 Some put it more strongly. James Ryle ‘prophesied’ that ‘God is getting ready to anoint Christian musicians with the same anointing that was given to the Beatles’, and he attributed to God the words, ‘I had a purpose, and the purpose was to usher in the charismatic renewal with music revival around the world.’5
Few warning voices were to be heard. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was almost alone in the 1960s in England when he warned against ‘the increasing tendency at the present time’ to use music to produce emotion; the justification being that music can make people happy, and when people feel happy they will find Christianity more acceptable. When an older generation sometimes expressed misgivings at the change this thinking had brought into public worship, they were told not to put their wishes before those of the outsiders whom the church needed to win. Few saw the danger pinpointed by Lloyd-Jones: the impression of music on natural feelings was being confused with spiritual truth: ‘Because it [music] is performed in connection with a religious service or by Christians, people imagine and persuade themselves that they are feeling the truth. But they are not. This feeling has no direct connection with what they have believed.’6
With this new departure came a flood of musical innovations into evangelical churches worldwide. The instruments of the old temple worship, as well as others, were restored, and with ‘music teams’, ‘music directors’, public worship has undergone a transformation.
It would be a mistake to say the change has come simply from the initiative of evangelicals. The Roman Catholic Church is no less involved, and in her case the new thinking was not new at all. It was under the Papacy, in the later Middle Ages, that the Church first commonly took up the use of instrumental music. At the time of the Reformation, Erasmus complained of the Roman Church:
We have brought into our churches a certain operose and theatrical music . . . as I think was ever heard in any of the Grecian or Roman theatres. The Church rings with the noise of trumpets, pipes and dulcimers; and human voices strive to bear their part with them . . . Men run to church as to a theatre, to have their ears tickled.7
The Reformers rejected the paraphernalia of musical accompaniments, not because they did not appreciate the place of congregational song in the worship of God but, on the contrary, because they wanted its restoration to New Testament simplicity. In the words of Calvin: ‘In gospel times we must not have recourse to these, unless we wish to destroy the evangelical perfection, and to obscure the meridian light which we enjoy in Christ.’8 Far from having any right to claim the support of Scripture for what Rome had introduced, he further says: ‘Now that Christ has appeared, and the church has reached full age, it were only to bury the light of the gospel, should we introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation.’9
The Church of Rome, in her apostasy, has long exhibited the full outworking of the danger which evangelicalism has been ignoring. But sometimes protest coming from an unexpected quarter broke the silence. Richard Bennett, after finishing his education at the Angelicum University of Rome, served as a priest in Trinidad. In all his years there, he writes, Protestant Christians from overseas sometimes came to services,
saw our sacred oils, holy water, medals, statues, vestments, rituals, and never said a word! The marvellous style, symbolism, music, and artistic taste of the Roman Church were all very captivating. Incense not only smells pungent, but to the mind it spells mystery. One day, a woman challenged me (the only Christian ever to challenge me in all my twenty-two years as a priest), ‘You Roman Catholics have a form of godliness, but you deny its power.’ Those words bothered me for some time because the lights, banners, folk music, guitars and drums were dear to me. Clearly I was unable to apply the Scripture to my life where it mattered most.10
The change in public worship in evangelical churches is not the harmless thing it is thought to be. ‘So long as there is good preaching’, it is said, ‘we need not be overly concerned.’ We ought to be concerned! An appetite is being fed which in the past has led to the very abandonment of the gospel. When satisfying the ‘natural’ becomes acceptable in churches, the spiritual will not long remain. As the long-time Catholic, and later Protestant martyr, Hugh Latimer, warned, ‘When candles go up, preaching comes down.’
That music has great prominence in modern society is not in doubt. Nor is it the first time that such attention has been given to music in periods of decadence. Horatius Bonar noted:
In connection with the ‘decline and fall’ of the Roman Empire, a singular fact has been recorded. – When the arts were declining, – poetry, sculpture, painting, deteriorating, – religion and patriotism decaying, – music was cultivated to an extraordinary extent. Old Romans died music-mad.11
Accommodating the churches to contemporary culture may increase numbers (for a time); it has never led to a spiritual awakening. Unless there is a God-given change, it is to be feared that we will see in evangelicalism a developing apostasy.
- ‘Dislike of the purity and simplicity of the gospel worship is that which was the rise of, and gave increase or progress unto the whole Roman apostasy. Men do not like the plain institutions of Christ, but are pleased with the meretricious Roman paint, wherewith so great a part of the world hath been beguiled and infatuated.’ John Owen, Works, 20:114-5, also identified as his Exposition of Hebrew, vol. 4 in the Goold/Banner of Truth edition. Likewise he argues that what was being addressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews was the temptation of professing Christians to regret the loss of the visual glory of Judaism. Owen’s Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel, in his Works, vol. 7, is unsurpassed as a treatment of the subject.
- Richard Bennett, Catholicism: East of Eden (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2010), p. 44.
- W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Catholic Faith, A Manual of Instruction for Members of the Church of England (London: Church Book Room Press, 1955), p. 147.
- That music is ‘neutral’ is by no means always true. ‘Since music should help the reception of the Word of God, it should be weighty, dignified, majestic and modest; fitting attitudes for sinful creatures in the presence of God’ (Calvin).
- Quoted by John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. 72.
- Living Water, Studies in John (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), p. 365. He added: ‘If you start clapping your hands or stamping your feet or moving them in a rhythmic manner, you are the whole time dealing with this realm of the emotions. And there is a great deal of that today. Some even deliberately employ psychological methods – different coloured lights, for instance, to prey upon the emotions’ (p. 366).
- Quoted by John L. Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Richmond, VA; 1888), p. 162. R. L. Dabney, reviewing and commending Girardeau’s book, made the same point as Dr Lloyd-Jones: ‘Blinded men are ever prone to imagine that they have religious feelings, because they have sensuous, animal feelings, in accidental juxtaposition with religious places, words, or sights. This is the pernicious mistake which has sealed up millions of self-deceived souls in hell.’ Dr Girardeau’s Instrumental Music in Public Worship, A Review (Richmond, VA: 1889), p. 8.
- On 1 Samuel 18:1-9.
- On Psalm 92:3, quoted by C. H. Spurgeon, whose church also used no instrumental accompaniment, The Treasury of David, vol. 4 (London; Marshall, Morgan, & Scott, 1950), p. 123. Many Protestant churches have used one instrument instead of a precentor to set the tune; this is very different from the instrumental accompaniment that is now promoted.
- Catholicism: East of Eden, pp. 9-10.
- Horatius Bonar, Our Ministry (Edinburgh: MacNiven 1883), p. 74.
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