Footnotes to previous posts

In previous posts, I wrote about the singing of Psalms and the absence of musical instruments in church worship in the New Testament church. I argued that the Psalms were and are the church’s song book, and that use of instrumental music in worship was and should still be regarded as Judaizing; that is, the introduction of Old Testament ceremonial practices into the New Testament Church.

Since writing those posts, I’ve come across some footnotes that relate to them.

In The Baker History of the Church Vol 1: The birth of the Church (AD 30-312), 2004, Ivor Davidson makes the following observation:

There was also singing of “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:16). The Jewish [sic] Psalter was the primary songbook, and believers found clear images of their Lord, his suffering, and his exaltation in the Psalms … Psalms were read aloud as well as sung, as they were in Jewish worship, and singing in general would almost always have been undertaken without any kind of instrumental accompaniment. Indeed, in later Christian writers there would be a great deal of polemic against musical instruments, which were strongly associated with worldly entertainment (p.118, see also endnote 12, p. 378)

In volume 2 (AD 312-600) of the same series, A Public Faith, 2005, Davidson wrote as follows:

About the actual music of Christian worship we know a lot less then we might wish. So far as we can tell, singing remained unaccompanied virtually everywhere, but the absence of musical instruments did not mean that the aesthetic qualities of worship were treated lightly (p.267).

I’d only add that there is no evidence of the use of musical instruments in the NT itself, and musical instruments were shunned in the early church for that reason, and not only because of pagan usage. The use of instrumental music in worship was regarded as part of the Levitical service that had been abolished in Christ. John Chrysostom, for example explicitly referred to it as being of the ‘child’ phase of the church that Paul mentions in Galatians 3:24-25 when he was speaking against the use of OT practices in the NT church.

The Psalms were and should still be sung because they are God’s word, they speak of Christ (Eg., Luke 24:44 and Hebrews 1-3), and as such they constitute His praise rather than ours.  It is His praise that we are to sing. We should sing the Psalms in our church worship with grace in the heart, unaccompanied by anything but the Holy Spirit who speaks by and with His word.


Cunningham’s comment on conversion

William Cunningham lived a long time ago (1805-1861), but I think he has still some things to tell us today. Cunningham was raised within the Church of Scotland, and was preparing to become a Presbyterian minister when he discovered that he was not a Christian. In one of his later sermons, Cunningham made the following observation about conversion:

It is impossible that such an important change can have taken place upon our moral nature, without attracting our attention, and forcing itself upon our notice … unless a man be conscious of having undergone a great and radical change of moral principle through belief in the Gospel, unless he be conscious that his moral principles are very different now from what they once were, he can hardly have any good grounds for believing that he has repented and been converted.

(‘How to estimate [evaluate/gauge] repentance’, Sermons, p. 34).


Have mercy on me, a sinner

Today in church we considered these words from a parable that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). In the story, these two men were praying in the temple.

Of the two, the tax collector got the idea of the temple. It was the place where God assured his people that He was a God who forgives. He forgives wrong doers on the basis of an acceptable sacrifice — one that God had instituted.

The pharisee thought that he had made the grade. He had done sufficient for God to accept him. He had not come looking for mercy; he had come for congratulations. That is why he prayed to himself about his religious activities. Jesus said that these things did not justify the pharisee before God.

The tax collector, the bad guy, had come to understand that he was a lawless person whose bad deeds had offended his God and creator. His words indicate that he understood the temple’s purpose. He said, “Have mercy on me a sinner!”

This was not a request that God should simply overlook the tax collector’s bad deeds. It was a plea that God would act to take away his guilt by an acceptable sacrifice. Literally, the tax collector says, “Make propitiation for me, a sinner!”

To make propitiation means to do whatever is necessary to remove the cause of offence.

On the day of atonement, in the days of the temple, the blood of a bull was sprinkled by the high priest onto a gold plate that was on top of the ark of the covenant. That plate was called the mercy — the propitiation — seat. Propitiation was made by the death of a substitute.

The tax collector recognised that one must die for him if he were to be rescued from the death and judgement that his sins deserved. He was asking God to make propitiation for him.

Our Lord Jesus, who was telling this story, is the answer to that prayer. In Romans 3:24-25 we are told the Christ Jesus, God the Son, is the propitiation for our sins by his death. This propitiation is received by faith. We simply trust that Christ has done all that is necessary to remove our guilt and to reconcile us to God. This is good news.




An old stone church

We worshipped in an old stone church while on holidays. I admit that my prejudices were making me apprehensive. Old stone churches, to my mind, often mean churches where human traditions trump the gospel of Jesus Christ.

11th tas arvo 185.JPG

But I was very pleased to have my prejudices proved wrong in this case.

The Good News of Jesus was much in the forefront. The reality of human sinfulness and our great need for God’s grace in Christ were made clear from the text of the Bible.

More than this, a Psalm was sung — a real Psalm — not just a snippet pinched from a Psalm and repeated over and over again, nor a piece of a Psalm incorporated into a merely human composition. It was a complete Psalm — in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Australia! This is something I have grown NOT to expect from a church whose historic practice was (and whose continuing doctrinal position is) to sing Psalms in the public worship of God. The PCA had become to me almost an anti-Psalm church.

So this unexpected occurrence in a old stone church cheered me considerably.

The public square

In pluralist democracies, ought Christians use their vote and whatever power of persuasion that they might possess to influence the character of society and its laws? This is an important matter to think about. Some people seem to argue that Christians who really trust Jesus  should let civil society go to (or stay with) the Devil and simply tell our neighbours, friends and enemies about Jesus in private conversation. To do otherwise, we are assured, is to use the force of law to oppress non-Christians.

It seems to me that Christians may engage politically as Christians to influence the direction of secular societies. The word ‘secular’, by the way, has nothing inherently atheistic about it. It simply refers to time and space – the here and now. Of course, the word’s extended use now includes the atheistic connotation, but there was a time when the church recognised ‘secular’ clergy – priests who were not monks attached to a religious order such as the Augustinians. Their job was to influence society rather than to hide from it. Whatever your view of priests and monks might be, our Lord Jesus urged his people to be in the world but not of it. I take this to mean that Christians must be engaged – as fully as our circumstances allow — in all the human activities of this world, and to do so as Christians. This includes attempting to influence public morality for the real good of people.

I suggest that the examples of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra support this view. These missionaries arrived at Lystra and presented the Gospel of Jesus to them. During this presentation, a lame man was healed. The people of Lystra utterly mistook the clear teachings of the apostles and intended to worship them as pagan gods (Acts 14: 11-18). The apostles were quite willing publicly to oppose the pagan worldview and to urge the people of Lystra to change their civic behaviour —  civil and religious behaviour was greatly intertwined in pagan society.

In fact the apostles made great and earnest arguments to prevent the people of Lystra from following their own ideas of worship and the good life. Paul told them directly that their religious behaviour was futile and wrong. He and Barnabas had come to turn them from “vain things”. Paul said that ‘in bygone generations [God] allowed all nations to walk in their own ways’ but now the gospel of Jesus has come. As he said in Acts 17 (after saying similar things about bygone generations), God now calls all people everywhere to repent (to change their thinking) as a day of judgement is coming.

It seems to me that Paul saw both belief and behaviour as things to be earnestly addressed in the public square and he made every effort to turn (by argument) people from the poor choices that they have made. Paganism was very accepting of multiple beliefs. You could believe whatever you wanted as long as you agreed that everyone else should believe whatever they wanted. Christianity cut across that worldview. Christianity asserts truth. Paul’s only weapons were arguments and truth statements about who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for us here and now and for the future.

Life in the secular ends with life in eternity. Eternal life will either be very good or very bad. If the Church does not make a clear public statement about human sin and does not identify what sin is in all its forms, then how will anyone see their need of the saviour which the Church is to proclaim? Our Lord Jesus made the sinful behaviour of church people clear as he spoke in synagogues, Paul made the sinful behaviour of pagans clear as he spoke in the streets of Greek cities. They both did this so that the offer of good news in Jesus would make sense. Jesus is the only remedy for our moral and spiritual failures.

(BTW, Paul did not have the vote, but he did have Roman citizenship, the force of which he was quite prepared to use on a number of occasions.)

Honour your father and mother

The religious leaders in Jesus’ day had decided that the moral commandments of God could and should be circumvented. Jesus disagreed. There certainly were some man-made rules that our Lord was indifferent about, such as ceremonial washing before meals, but he not only defended the righteousness of the law of God, but also urged obedience to it.

Let’s take the honouring of parents as an example. Some religious leaders had decided that this commandment was too burdensome so they had created an argument to allow people to avoid honouring their aged parents. If someone’s parents were in need of financial assistance, the children might dedicate  to the temple that portion of their money that might have been used to help their parents. The money then was regarded as off limits to the parents, and the money saved might one day get to the temple.

Jesus saw this for what it was. Setting aside the law of God. The religious leaders preferred their own rules in order to benefit those who were determined not to honour their parents. They had framed their outrage against God’s law in pious language, but Jesus saw it for what it was — unbelieving disobedience.

Our Lord quoted Isaiah the prophet against these religious leaders: ‘You honour me with your lips, but your heart is far from me.’ They would not honour God by teaching — and calling people to obey — the commandments of God. The message of Jesus was a gracious message of forgiveness on the basis of his own life, death and resurrection. His call to all people was, ‘Repent and believe the gospel.’ Repentance involves the conviction of sin. Sin is lawlessness.

The apostle Paul makes the same point in Romans 1. Those who are disobedient to parents are under the condemnation of God. So are those who encourage those who dishonour their parents. It is no use to say that we are born that way (the evidence seems to be that all except Jesus failed this one), or to say that disobedience to parents is natural and normal. God’s law condemns it and only Christ can rescue us from the just condemnation that is due to it.

Paul went further. He said that those who will not care for or honour their own parents (and, by implication, those who encourage people not to honour their parents) have denied the faith are are worse than unbelievers.

The good news is that God’s love in Christ brings real forgiveness to bad people. However, bad people like us must realise our badness before we can recognise that the news of the gospel is extraordinarily good. To set aside that moral law of God is to dishonour God and to disable the gospel of grace.

May God give repentance to religious leaders of our day who minimised the moral law of God. The moral law is a means that God uses to work conviction of sin in the hearts of sinners. May the reality of God’s just judgement on sin cause many to turn to Jesus Christ as our only hope of mercy.