The Reformed faith, the Reformed confession, is more than five points on salvation (Dort). It is more than a set of doctrines. It is also a piety, a way of relating to God, and a set of churchly practices that grow out of our theology, i.e., our reading of Scripture, and our piety. Our reading of Scripture tells us, for example, that God created the world, by the power of his Word, out of nothing (ex nihilo). On the seventh day God is said to have “rested.” From the immediate context and from the rest of Scripture we understand that rest to be figurative and symbolic. The God who created everything by the power of his word does not need rest because he does not get tired. He is God almighty and not some idol. Exodus 20:8 tells us that the point of God’s “rest” in creation was to teach us to rest. We are to imitate him. The pattern of working and resting is built into the fabric of creation. The general Sabbath pattern was not a Mosaic institution. The Saturday Sabbath may be said to have been a Mosaic institution but one day of rest in seven is as natural (i.e., creational) as marriage (Gen 2:24–25). The Reformed Churches have always recognized this pattern because we have a doctrine of creation (nature) and a doctrine of grace (redemption). In our understanding of Scripture God is both Creator and Redeemer. Much of American evangelical theology, piety, and practice, however, is not informed by this same understanding. It is informed by a view of nature and grace that regards nature with suspicion. In this tradition (which has roots both in some strains of Patristic asceticism, in medieval mysticism, and in sixteenth-century Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice) sees nature as something more or less to be obliterated by grace. This manifests itself in perfectionism, the second-blessing theologies of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements, in revivalism, and in what we might think of as the dominant bi-polar piety among American evangelicals that alternates between manic religious activity and retreat into the monastic piety of the “quiet time.”
This pattern is evident in the recent and well-publicized decision of J. D. Greear, President of the Southern Baptist Convention and Pastor of The Summit Church, in Durham, NC to cancel worship services yesterday. The Summit Church is not alone. Other congregations also cancelled services yesterday in order to allow members to stay home, to rest, and to spend time with their families. As I have noted before, the decision to rest and to be quiet on the Lord’s Day does recognize important aspects of the Sabbath. Yet, the decision to cancel services because they are exhausting tells us a great deal about the difference between the biblical pattern of worship, rest, and work and the pattern represented by The Summit and other congregations.
As the discussion unfolded one of the musicians from The Summit defended the decision to cancel services on the ground that the musicians were exhausted from putting on a big production for Christmas. That is understandable but what if there were no big Christmas production? Indeed, what if there were no musicians? That might seem radical but it would not have seemed so to most of the church for most of its history. Our giant Christmas celebration is a novelty driven much more by sentiment and commercial interests than it by Scripture or by the Christian tradition. The early post-Apostolic church knew nothing of Christmas. The Some of the church orders for some of the Reformed Churches allowed for the observance of Christ’s birth but Calvin did so under protest. This is not about Christmas. The big production is symbolic of what evangelical worship and piety has become. Someone on Twitter recently opined that if a worship service cannot be conducted without electricity, we are doing it incorrectly. His point is that the church worshipped without benefit of screens, blue lights, etc. for nearly all of its history. If we think that electricity is essential to a public worship service, we have lost sight of what true worship is. The Lord himself ordained the blood of bulls and goats and he said that what he desired was a broken spirit and a contrite heart (Ps 15:17).
People are understandably exhausted by endless small group gatherings, church-organized social events, big Christmas and Easter productions, the grind of a weekly worship service production, staff-meetings, personal evangelism, altar calls, discipleship meetings, the “quiet time,” and so on. I lived in a smaller, lower tech version of that world for a while and it exhausted me as a layman.
There is an alternative theology, piety, and practice, which recognizes the essential goodness of nature per se, that nature has been corrupted by the fall, that human nature is renewed by grace, and that all nature will be renewed in the new heavens and the new earth. There is a theology, piety, and practice that is not bipolar—or is not supposed to be so. The theology of the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) churches (as distinct from the mainline or liberal P&R churches) affirms the inerrancy of God’s holy Word, the goodness of creation (against the Gnostics), the reality and effects of the fall, salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone, the goodness of all just vocations, and the goodness of service to neighbor through fulfilling our vocation in this world. In short, we live in a twofold kingdom, in God’s good, if fallen, world. We work six days and rest on the first day of the week, which the New Testament calls “the Lord’s Day.” This is the day on which our Lord Jesus was raised and on which he inaugurated his new creation.
Our piety is warm but it begins with the objective, with public worship, the preaching of the Word, public prayer, and the use of the sacraments. Those blessings, which we call “the means of grace,” overflow into our family prayers and our private prayers. We gather for worship twice on the Lord’s Day (when we are at our best). We administer the Supper frequently (when we are at our best). We sing God’s Word (the Psalms and other parts of Scripture, when we are at our best). In between services on the Lord’s Day we rest, we eat, and do works of mercy. When we are at our best, we do not exhaust God’s people with endless activities because we do not measure piety by busy-ness nor by monastic retreat or achievement. We leave the measuring of piety to the Lord. In most of our congregations there are Bible studies and fellowship groups of various kinds and service projects but, when we are at our best, our services are not giant productions. Some of our congregations follow the early Christian pattern and sing only God’s Word and that without instruments. When the electricity goes out, they light a candle (for illumination only) and keep going.
There is an alternative to the alternation between manic activity and monastic retreat. It is the steady service of God and neighbor for six days as we fulfill our vocations to the glory of God. On the Lord’s Day we rest. Our worship services are simple and heavily dependent upon Scripture. Indeed, we confess that we do nothing in worship except those things that God has commanded. In this way we protect Christian liberty and honor our confession the Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life.
There is a better way.