Thursday, July 13, 2017

Confess With Your Mouth, or...The Last Time I’m Going to Argue with Gideons

If there is one thing that I have learned over a lifetime of dealing with people, it is that they are seldom predictable. In particular, it is devilishly difficult to predict how people will react to things one says, or writes. I’ve said it before: As someone who publishes his writings on the Internet, it is generally advisable for me to grow a thick skin and ignore the bulk of the criticism of that comes my way. After all, someone will always disagree with, or be offended by, something.

I remain stunned, however, by the response that my article, “Why I Quit the Gideons,” received when I published it, and still continues to receive. Reading many of the comments, it is clear that some of the more outraged critics did not read, or properly understand, what I wrote. I continue to receive, from time to time, thoughtful, and respectfully written comments which I think need to be addressed, and can be debated to the edification of all. This is now the second time I have endeavored to address concerns raised by my critics on The Gideon article. I recently received this comment from David Crow:

In the following statement you said “Among the issues I ran into were Pelagianism, the prosperity gospel, works righteousness, and the idea that people are converted by your testimony rather than by God working through means as he has promised (the means of grace – Word and Sacrament)” [sic] I have been a Gideon since 2005. My experience in this organization has been totally opposite of your statement and find it a FALSE Statement. I don’t think there is enough space to point out other falsehoods in why you are not a Gideon. In fact, your statements do not line up with the basic application form and the 3 theological statements you put your name too. 1. Jesus is who he said he was, 2. The Bible is inherent [sic] word of God, & 3 – There is a lake of Fire for unbelievers as mentioned in Revelation. After that, we are not supposed to discuss theological doctrine. If you were in a camp that did otherwise, I highly suggest you report them to Gideons International in Nashville, TN.

Or this one from Estudiante:

Hi. I stumbled on this page looking for something else, but read through your post. It seems worth noting that the experience you’ve had within your immediate circle/chapter of Gideons may not be representative of most chapters around the country/world. Also, of course there are misuses of prescribed prayers and “decision cards” in evangelistic settings. But, the Gideons aren’t saying “repeat this sinners prayer and welcome to God’s family!”. [sic] Thy are merely providing suggested prayer language to help someone express in prayer what is in their heart, which is not per se wrong (and a “staple” of confessional Lutheran worship practice!!). And marking a significant day in one’s conversion to Jesus by having and signing a spiritual “birth certificate” in the back of a New Testament isn’t per se wrong either. It’s not really different than the certificate of baptism a Lutheran parent receives when their child is baptized. My grandmother doesn’t believe she is saved just because she has a signed certificate from the Danish Lutheran church. It’s not fair to make that accusation against someone just for holding a “decision card”. I mean this constructively because you seem like you might have an at-least-mostly-correct understanding of God’s Word and it seems like you want to persuade people toward the truth about Jesus. But, seriously, if you want to persuade thinking people toward the truth, then jumping to unsupported conclusions just isn’t going to work; you’re going to lose them right out of the gate. Maybe there’s unshared information from your experience or from elsewhere that would support your accusations that many or most in the Gideons organization are are [sic] Pelagians or prosperity gospel types. But your post only jumps to these conclusions. Another bit meant constructively…If your “camp leader” is in error regarding matters of salvation, don’t write him a letter, definitely not one that sounds like an over-zealous confessional Lutheran elevator speech. Meet with him to read the Bible and pray. I mean, you believe he’s off about SALVATION, right?

There are many similar comments on the post, which one can peruse at one’s leisure. They all end up making the similar points: 1) You shouldn’t worry so much about doctrine, because the Gideons are doing a good thing, 2) You’re hindering God’s work, and causing division, by pointing out what *you* think is error, and mischaracterizing the Gideons, and 3) You do make a decision to believe in Christ.

Before I continue discussing those three overarching issues, common to most of the dissenting comments I have received, I must point out the following, in response to Estudiante’s comments: Never do I ascribe the doctrinal errors I encountered in my personal experience with pastors who attended my local camp’s functions, to all Gideons, with the exception of Decision Theology. In fact, I praised the organization for its high esteem of God’s Word. I would encourage those who think otherwise to carefully reread the original article. Also, the decision page on the back of the PWT does much more than provide suggested prayer language. It is called “My Decision to Receive Christ as My Saviour.” It says, “Confessing to God that I am a sinner, and believing that the Lord Jesus Christ died for my sins on the cross and was raised for my justification, I do now receive and confess Him as my personal Saviour.” That, my friend, is the definition of Decision Theology, and is as different from a Lutheran baptismal certificate as night is from day. As for the quotation marks around “camp leader,” and the reference to my “letter” to him, I can only assure you that this letter was indeed written, and sent to the gentleman who led the Gideons Camp of which I was a member, with the intention of opening a dialog. I earnestly desired to sit down with him and discuss this matter face to face. Unfortunately, I never received a response from him. By the way, Confessional Lutherans don’t do elevator speeches. From our very beginnings in the 16th Century, we have desired dialog, and real fellowship and doctrinal unity, with those groups with which we disagree. This is evidenced by our confessional writings, as contained in the Book of Concord. They were all written to explain our theology, and to debate and dialog with our Christian brothers, some of whom misunderstood or mischaracterized our theology, and to combat doctrinal error.

In answer to the three general concerns raised in objection to my article, I would offer these three points: 1) Holy Scripture calls Christians to teach right doctrine, 2) It isn’t mean, or un-Christian to point out doctrinal error, 3) Decision Theology is contrary to God’s Word.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen (Matthew 28:18-20).

Christians, in general, and pastors in particular, are called to teach right doctrine. In this final passage from Matthew, Jesus, as he ascends into heaven, commands his disciples to teach and observe, “all things that I have commanded you.” It isn’t enough for Christians to simply agree to disagree about difficult doctrinal points. Christ’s command is clear. We are to teach and observe all the things he has commanded. We must, acknowledging Holy Scripture as the only rule and norm for discerning doctrine, search it diligently, reading God’s Word in its proper context, and rightly dividing Law and Gospel. Indeed, pastors dare never forget that their paramount business is to preach doctrine, the divine doctrine of Holy Scripture.[1] This is such an important point that St. Paul takes great care to warn Timothy to give attention to right doctrine, and to be careful to continue in it:

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you (1 Timothy 4:12-16).

St. Paul is preparing Timothy to be a faithful pastor who contends against the doctrines of demons (v. 1). Nowhere in 1 Timothy chapter four, does St. Paul give the slightest impression that it is alright for Timothy to not discuss certain difficult teachings, or to “agree to disagree” for the sake of unity. No, he is commended for carefully following good doctrine, and instructed to reject the profane. St. Paul understands that doing so runs counter to the spirit of this present age, and will win Timothy no admirers, but will instead bring reproach. The footnotes to this passage in the Lutheran Study Bible adds the following:

Pastors are to command and teach true doctrine, while condemning doctrine that is false and deceitful. This runs counter to the spirit of the present age, which downplays the importance of true doctrine and avoids condemning all but the most extreme examples of false doctrine.[2]

In his second letter, St. Paul tells Timothy the same message about sound doctrine. He encourages him to stand fast in sound doctrine, even though there will come a time when the world will not endure it, and Timothy will be faced with affliction for his stance:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4: 1-5).

To teach sound doctrine, and to rebuke the false, St. Paul tells Timothy, is to do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill his ministry. This is quite a contrast from the attitude of the Gideons International organization, which, as the commenter rightly points out, discourages the discussion of doctrine beyond the “big three” points listed on the membership application.

As for being nice: St. Paul certainly didn’t worry about offending anyone when it came to teaching sound doctrine, or rebuking error. He spoke boldly to St. Peter, when he was in error concerning the Judaizers:

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:11-21).

St. Paul says here that St. Peter’s hypocrisy in the matter of observing the traditions and laws of the Jews, was him not being straightforward about the truth of the Gospel. But what does it matter, if they think they have to keep Jewish traditions, if they believe in Christ, one might argue? St. Paul says it makes all the difference in the world. It means that the law, the thing that they *do*, is the how they are seeking to be justified; and by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. He doesn’t chalk it up to a disagreement. He doesn’t let it go for the sake of superficial unity. He confronts the false teaching (another word for doctrine, by the way), and strongly rebukes it, because it obscures the Gospel. He doesn’t care if he sounds “mean.” This method of confronting false doctrine, as opposed to ignoring it, is the more loving response to the Christian brother in error.

I have spent many hours writing against Decision Theology, and will not reproduce all of those writings and arguments here. In my first “reader comments” article (In Response to Hans Bischof Regarding Decision Theology and Silly Arguments), I summed up the problem with Decision Theology like this:

If mankind is the actor in conversion, by doing the work of making a decision, or anything else, then salvation depends on man. If this is the case, a man must be convinced, and in many cases manipulated, to commit an act of will and declare himself for Christ. I understand how we can be seduced to believe such a thing. It seems logical. As logical and reasonable as this may seem, however, Scripture says otherwise. To maintain this Pelagianism is to take Christ’s work away from him. If, however, God is the one who does the verbs – who chooses, who converts, who saves, who declares righteous – we can have tremendous comfort.[3] 

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.[4] Therefore, in order for one to “confess with their mouth” they must first be made to “believe in their heart,” by the working of the Holy Spirit. Confessional Lutherans believe, teach, and confess that man cannot, by his own reason, or strength, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, or come to him, because it is what Holy Scripture teaches. Mankind, by his very nature, is spiritually blind and dead.[5] Natural, unregenerate man, is God’s enemy.[6]

These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2: 13-16).

In 1 Corinthians chapter two, Paul is describing spiritual wisdom. He contrasts spiritual wisdom (summarized by the phrase “Jesus Christ and Him crucified”), with worldly wisdom. He says that he came to them in weakness, preaching a wisdom, Christ crucified for them, which was revealed to them by the Spirit of God (vv. 3, 11). He says that they listened to him, not because he convinced them by the “excellence” of his speech, or “with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (vv. 3-5).” St. Paul continues to explain that, the wisdom he was teaching the Corinthians was foolishness to the natural man (v. 14); it was understood by them because they, possessing the Holy Spirit, have the mind of Christ (15-16). The reason they – and we – can receive the things of the Spirit of God, is because the Spirit of God makes us able to receive them. We make no decision to believe. We are incapable of making such a decision before our conversion, as Scripture plainly teaches. He converts us, and not randomly, out of nowhere, but through the preaching of God’s Word (His means of grace) by sinful human beings like St. Paul, or your parish pastor.

Adding your decision to believe to Christ’s work of redemption on the cross (Christ’s death, and…) makes your decision the basis for your salvation. Decision Theology, the doctrine that man must be convinced to make a decision of his own will to believe in Christ to be saved, is unscriptural. As much as our rational mind might want to reconcile the conflicting ideas that 1) God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, and 2) not all men will be saved, it is impossible. I am confident that these things fit together in a way which God understands perfectly. Perhaps, when we are in eternity, we will understand as well. For now, I shall repent and believe the Gospel[7], things which I would not be able to do, apart from the working of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, while working on this article, I received another comment from Glenn Dowling, which I will reproduce here, only in part:

Abraham Lincoln had a story which ended in the point, “When a feller doesn’t want to do something, any excuse will do.” Joseph, no one is walking around the perfect knowledge [sic] but the Bible provides God’s inspired word and the Holy Spirit is the teacher. What, brother, are you doing to further God’s word and the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I struggled with this comment, because it asks a good, and valid question. In fact, that question is partially what spurred me on to want to join the Gideons in the first place. Christians are called to do Good Works.

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent… For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (John 6:28-29; Ephesians 2:10).

In the first passage from John, Jesus says that *the* work of God, that is, the thing that saves us, is to believe in Him. This, as discussed exhaustively above, and in other places, we cannot do by our own reason, or strength. The passage from Ephesians, however, explains that, our purpose after conversion is to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do. From beginning to end, conversion, repentance, faith, and good works, all these things are done by God and given to us as gift. Of course, the Confessions teach this as well:

I do not know how to change in the least what I have previously and constantly taught about justification. Namely, that through faith, as St. Peter says, we have a new and clean heart (Acts 15:9-11), and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). Although sin in the flesh has not yet been completely removed or become dead (Romans 7:18), yet He will not punish or remember it. Such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins are followed by good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). What is still sinful or imperfect in them will not be counted as sin or defect, for Christ’s sake (Psalm 32:1-2; Romans 4:7-8). The entire individual, both his person and his works, is declared to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us and spread over us in Christ. Therefore, we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy. As it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31); namely, that he has a gracious God. For with that, all is well. We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, the faith is false and not true (SA III XIII 1-4).[8]

So, the question remains: What am I doing to further God’s Word, and the Gospel of Christ? The answer is, nothing…at least in the sense that the question is asked by Glenn Dowling. No, I am not going out on mission trips. I no longer stand on the street corner offering New Testaments to passers-by. By those measures, I am a piss-poor Christian, and those Gideons who devote their time and effort to doing such things have far surpassed me.

The Church’s existence and growth, however, doesn’t depend on us. It depends on Christ. The Church is His body. We should maintain and extend God’s church by telling others about Jesus Christ, by personal service, and by prayer and financial support, but we must ultimately, however, recognize the truth of St. Paul’s words:

“I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor" (1 Cor. 3:6-8).

God will increase his Church as he sees fit, working by His Holy Spirit, through the means he has provided, when and where he wills.

So, faith must be lacking in me, because I don’t do good works, right? Well, that’s not exactly true either. What are good works? They are what a child of God does in faith. We know that we can’t do the work that saves us, but we can, after conversion, by the power of the Holy Spirit, do the works God has prepared in advance for us to do. We are given these works to do in our various vocations. He has called me into the vocation of Husband, of Father, of Citizen, of Employee (bond-servant, if you will), of Parishioner, of Friend, among others. In Christ, God regards all of our works done in faith, living out our vocation, as pure and holy.

While some are called to be missionaries and pastors, others are not. We are called to strive to overcome sin, and do good works. We who are not called to the vocation of missionary or pastor, however, are still called to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified among those with whom we have a relationship, according to our vocations. We must still, as St. Paul tells Timothy, hold fast to sound doctrine, and we must teach all that Christ commanded us. We must do all this, knowing that it is not our works, which remain tainted by sin, that advance the Gospel, or grow the Church, or convert the sinner. After all, he who plants and he who waters are nothing. God gives the increase. And God’s word, as Mr. Dowling points out, will not return to him void, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. This is why I expressed my love and admiration for the men who pass out Scripture to the public, as brothers in Christ. I do so now again.

For their theological faults, one of the redeeming characteristics of the Gideons organization is the thing for which they are best known – placing Bibles, and distributing New Testaments to the public. In the end, the Gideons, at least the ones I met, all believed that the Bible is the divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God. And, while I can’t associate myself with them because of their doctrinal error, I pray that God will continue to use the scriptures they disseminate, to regenerate people who are dead in their trespasses and sins.[9]

As a Lutheran pastor once said, “God doesn’t need your good works; your neighbor does.”



[1] Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics, Volume I. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953.
[2] Engelbrecht, Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009
[3] Klotz, Joseph D. “In Response to Hans Bischof Regarding Decision Theology and Silly Arguments.” The Hodgkins Lutheran. http://hodgkinslutheran.blogspot.com/2016/04/in-response-to-hans-bischof-regarding.html (accessed July 13, 2017).
[4] 1 Corinthians 12:3
[5] Romans 8:7-9 – For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his.
[6] Romans 5:6-11
[7] Repentance and faith both being gifts of the Holy Spirit, through the means of God’s Word. See 2 Timothy 2:25, and Ephesians 2:1-10.
[8] McCain, Paul T., et. al. “Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord.” Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.
[9] Klotz, Joseph D. “Why I Quit the Gideons.” The Hodgkins Lutheran (June 5, 2015). http://hodgkinslutheran.blogspot.com/2015/06/why-i-quit-gideons.html (accessed July 13, 2017). 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Liturgical Worship...Also Not Fit for Lutheran Consumption?

I am a high-church weirdo. I like the “smells and bells.” I like incense. I want my pastor to wear vestments…Lots of vestments. I think genuflecting is neat. If I were the king of church, things would look a lot different. Worship in the Lutheran Church – Joseph Synod would look a lot more like the 16th century than the 20th century. And the chanting…there would be sooooooo much chanting. Some of the chanting might be in English, as a good-will gesture to some of my more low-church friends…but not much.

Those who know me are rolling their eyes, chuckling softly to themselves now (I hope), and offering a silent prayer that there are, as of yet, no plans to elevate me to the throne. While they may not wish to return to a chanted Latin mass, my friends do know that my respect for our Lutheran liturgical heritage, as rooted in the western catholic liturgy, is genuine. In fact, though I may be decried as a filthy papist by some, I do not advocate “high-church” forms as necessary, or view them as good works. I do not, in reality, wish to exchange Wittenberg for Rome. Perhaps it is simply the result of my conservative inclinations to resist the novel. It is in keeping with the spirit of the Reformation to retain that which is beneficial, and to dispense with that which is harmful and contrary to God’s Word. Maybe my attraction to ancient liturgical forms is even a bit reactionary, considering the trends in modern Christianity to absorb as much secular culture as possible in an effort to simplify, and make people feel comfortable. Pastor Benjamin Mayes describes it this way:

“Within the last two decades, the Lutheran Church in the United States, and perhaps all Christendom in North America, has seen two tendencies in worship. One tendency is to make worship as accessible as possible to modern man, for the sake of mission. This tendency has led to wholesale or partial abandonment of historic western liturgical forms and has often neglected liturgical song, making worship music the business of a band or song leader. Music and text have striven for simplicity[1].”

This trend of modernizing worship for the sake of mission, and abandoning traditional forms and practices, is readily apparent, even to the most casual observer. The mission doesn’t even have to be legitimate. There are people who have made these changes for well-intended reasons, and there are those who have made them so as to tickle as many ears as possible, for the sake of filthy lucre. All you have to do is tune into TBN to see a parade of prosperity preachers promising you your best life now, if only you send in your seed offering. Mega churches like Willow Creek are trying to make “seekers” more comfortable, so that they will be persuaded to enter the church and, once inside, have their felt needs met. Not that I would necessarily call mega church worship “simple.” It takes a lot of time, money, equipment, planning, and personnel to pull off what goes on there, if it is to have the intended revivalist effect. From the worshipper’s point of view, however, it is somewhat passive. You sit, you listen, you repeat words and phrases as instructed by the leader. Maybe you sing, if you know the words to the latest CoWo rock song. But mostly you just “be emotionally manipulated” into making some kind of decision, or reaffirmation. This is much simpler than worshiping by using an archaic liturgy printed in some moldy old hymnal, or engaging the text of a Paul Gerhardt hymn.

While we (particularly we Confessional Lutherans) may see the danger of modernization and simplification easily enough, we often miss the dangers which approach us from the other direction. Our direction. Well meaning people – people like me – who love and respect our Lutheran liturgical heritage, and wish to preserve it, also are in danger of worshipping the form for the sake of mission, rather than Christ, who ought to always be the object of our worship.

What I’m saying is this: Sometimes we traditional types fall into the same pit as the contemporary worship types; We come to rely on our form and style of worship to draw people into the church and, to save them.

I believe wholeheartedly that “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” is true. I believe that the traditional liturgy, developed over the course of 2,000 years, is the best vehicle for delivering God’s gifts to his people gathered together as the church. I believe that the traditional liturgy is the type of worship most harmonious with Christian doctrine as presented in Scripture, and taught in the Lutheran Confessions. I do not believe, however, that Christ ceases to care for his people, or is hampered in his work, when we “don’t do church well.”

It is wrong to adopt contemporary worship practices in order to get people into the church, and keep it from closing. It is equally wrong to practice the liturgy in order to do the same.

This phenomenon may be explained like this: Our church is “dying,” and we want people to come and support it, so that we don’t close our doors, and so the Gospel continues to be proclaimed in this place. We know that the mega church model is contrary to Scripture and our confessions; what we will do instead of abandoning the liturgy, is embrace it…so tightly that we strangle it to death. We need the perfect pastor…one who has an excellent singing voice so that he can chant the liturgy perfectly. We need the perfect organist…what is E. Power Biggs up to these days? Dead, you say? See if we can get a hold of that Hector Olivera guy then. We have to have an organist who won’t detract from the worship experience with his bumbling mistakes. Speaking of worship experience, let’s see if we can get an acting coach for the new pastor while we’re at it. His sermons are orthodox, but he’s driving people away because he’s so boring. The liturgy, after all, is a play, and in order for it to be as effective as possible we have to make sure the pastor doesn’t screw it up by his mediocre performance skills. Did you hear how flat and monotone he delivered the Prayers of the Church last week? So distracting…And what’s with that choir?! Maybe we can find some ringers from some other church to help them out with their intonation. After all, we don’t want them to detract from the worship experience and drive people away. One more of those out-of-tune Graduals and the whole place will be empty.

It is frighteningly easy to develop the attitude that, if any one of a number of factors is missing or done “incorrectly” during the course of the worship service, then “church” has not been properly achieved. I know, because I was there.

The problem is that these aren’t really the things that drive people away from the church. The reason people stay away from church is because they hate Jesus.

Repent.

People are drawn to contemporary worship and the mega church because it focuses on them. It meets their felt needs. It enshrines their contemporary culture, which makes them feel comfortable. On the other side of that coin, people aren’t pushed away from the liturgy because the pastor has a nasal singing voice, or a dry delivery, or because the organist pumps out a few clinkers during the Te Deum (though this can be annoying). They walk away because, enshrined in the liturgy is Law and Gospel. People are told that they are sinful and need to repent. They are confronted with their sin and their need for a savior, week after week, and they don’t like it. Heck, I don’t like it. But, I know I need what Christ provides for me there – repentance, faith, and the forgiveness of my sin. And the people who remain know that as well.

So, how do we keep our churches open? We don’t. Jesus does that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, working through the means he has appointed – Word, Water, Bread and Wine.

The response I have most often received to this concept from many of my concerned brethren is something like, “Yes, yes, I know…Holy Spirit, and all that, but…” Or, “With all due respect to Word and Sacrament ministry, and the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish great things through them, I believe…” What this has in common with the contemporary worship mistake is that it focuses us, on us. Any time you add a “something” as necessary, you negate the sufficiency of Christ, even if that something is one of the liturgical bells/whistles we like. At that point, whatever that something is, it has supplanted Christ.

So, is it still church if we don’t have incense? How about if we don’t process? What if we don’t have kneelers, and my pastor doesn’t genuflect? What if we don’t have a choir? Or an organ? What if we only speak the liturgy, rather than chant it? Can we still worship in line with our liturgical tradition, in a way which teaches Christian doctrine as taught in the Scriptures and affirmed in the Confessions, without these things? I, at one time, would have answered no. History, and Holy Scripture, however, says yes.

“Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:18-20).

Christ, in this passage from Matthew 18, teaches the church how to deal with a sinning brother. He is not here referring to the universal church, but the congregation[2]. Jesus emphasized his point that the gathering of Christians (the congregation), no matter how large or small, has the power to come together to bind and loose by using the phrase, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name.” Luther explains:

“Here we hear that also two or three assembled in Christ’s name have the same power over everything which St. Peter and all the Apostles have. For the Lord Himself is present, as He says, too, John 14:23: ‘If a man love Me, he will keep My words, and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him and make Our abode with him.’…We here have present the Lord himself, the Lord of all angles and creatures; it is He who says that all are to have equal authority, keys, and office, even two common Christians by themselves, when gathered in His name. Of this Lord the Pope and all devils shall not make a fool, liar or drunkard, but we will trample on the Pope and declare that he is a confirmed liar, blasphemer, and idolatrous devil, who under St. Peter’s name has arrogated the keys to himself alone, while Christ has given them equally to all in common.[3]

The thing that makes church, according to Christ, is the gathering of Christians together in his name. Where two or three are thus gathered, there he is with them. The Augsburg Confession explains that, where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel, there is the church[4], whether there are two Christians present in a dark basement for fear of persecution, or 2,000 in an ornate cathedral. The Church’s existence and growth doesn’t depend on us, but rather on Christ, whose body the Church is. We should, as the Catechism explains, maintain and extend God’s church by telling others about Jesus Christ, by personal service, and by prayer and financial support[5]. We must ultimately, however, recognize the truth of St. Paul’s words:

“I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor" (1 Cor. 3:6-8).

God will increase his Church as he sees fit, working by His Holy Spirit, through the means he has provided, when and where he wills. In the words of the Small Catechism:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives me all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true[6].”

It doesn’t matter if your church is large or small. It doesn’t matter if your church performs the liturgy perfectly, by the outward act. You can’t grow the church by catering to people’s inclinations. Christ must grow his church. Leave it to him. Plant. Water. Let him worry about the increase. Your method – whatever it might be – may get more bodies inside the building, but they will, most likely, be worshiping an idol. Stop worrying; Preach Christ crucified. 



End Notes

[1] Mayes, Rev. Benjamin T. G. The Brotherhood Prayer Book. 2nd ed. Kansas City, KS: Emmanuel Press, 2007.

[2] The Smalcald Articles do not, of course, refer to the Church Universal, scattered over the whole world (ecclesia universalis), with the phrase “given to the Church,” but to the congregation (ecclesia particularis), as the passage added indicates: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” For the Church possesses all spiritual treasures and privileges, not inasmuch as it is large or small, but inasmuch as it consists of believers (Pieper, Franz. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. III. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publ. House, 1953. p. 452).

[3] Pieper, Franz. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. III. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publ. House, 1953. p. 452

[4] AC VII 1

[5] Luther, Martin. Luther's Small catechism, with explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1991. p. 159.

[6] Luther, Martin. Luther's Small catechism, with explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1991. p. 15.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Luther's Sermon for the First Sunday After Trinity

In a sermon on 1 John 4, Luther addresses those pastors and people who wrongly imagine that they can preach and listen only to the Gospel apart from the rebuke and admonition of the Law:

YOU have often heard and are now hearing the complaint, which is universal in all the world, that when human beings hear the preaching of faith about the remission of sins, they embrace it, because it is a delightful preaching: God has sent His Son for you. But when it is said that you must adorn your faith to the praise of God, and sins are rebuked, no one wants to hear anything more.

In towns everywhere, people distinguish among preachers. “This one is a fine preacher, who talks about grace and mercy; and what is even finer, he does not scold anyone or frighten people.” That is the way people commonly talk and act. If he does rebuke [sins], they undertake to have him removed. Therefore, many [of these preachers] have returned to us.

When you are scolded as a usurer, adulterer, or whatever kind of swine you are, or [it is said] that a peasant, a townsman, or a nobleman is godless, no one will suffer that. “But if I am a usurer, adulterer, swindler, and [the preacher] does not scold me, ah, what a pious man he is!”

[Are you] really righteous because I [do not] rebuke your vices? Then let the devil be [your] preacher. If I see peasants, townsmen, noblemen and do not chastise them, then I will go to the devil along with you. For [God says in] Ezekiel 3 [:18]: “I will require [their] blood at your [hands],” and they themselves will go to the devil. You shall give an account of yourself. I will not be responsible for that in the hour of death or of judgment. Rather, I shall declare what is contrary to the commandment, and then if you do not obey, you do it at your own peril.

. . . Surely an upright [Christian] gladly hears an admonition to faith, not to be greedy or a usurer, and he amends himself. I would want a brother to admonish me when I go astray. But they refuse to tolerate anyone who rebukes them [even] in general. When I say that usurers belong to the devil, why do you cry out? It is because you yourself are guilty. If you want to know which dog has been struck, it is the one who cries out.8 Therefore, you are accusing yourself, if you grumble, and are defaming yourself. As Cicero says, when vices are rebuked in general terms, whoever becomes angry at it shows himself to be guilty.

Whoever cannot bear it when unbelief is rebuked along with the fruits of unbelief, he is most certainly the dog who has been struck. But this is the purpose for which they want to misuse the Gospel: that they may do whatever they want, and the preachers should confirm it and so be cast down to hell along with them, or else we should nullify the Gospel and the ministry [of the Word], etc., [saying,] “Oh, it is all the same; do whatever you want and you will be saved!”

The Word must be unbound [cf. 2 Tim. 2:9]. It must be freely preached. Human nature has been corrupted by unbelief, which brings its fruits along with it. Therefore, sins must be rebuked, as in the Ten Commandments, etc. If you don’t want to listen to God, then don’t!

Luther, Martin. “Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity, 1 John 4:16–21.” Luther’s Works: Sermons V. Ed. & trans. by Christopher Boyd Brown. Vol. 58. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010, pp. 234–235.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Contemporary Worship: Not Fit for Lutheran Consumption - Part 2

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-24).

The idea that worship is where God serves us, rather than where we serve God, is probably one of the two biggest differences between Confessional Lutheranism and American Evangelicalism[1]. Confessional Lutherans view worship as God’s service toward man for some simple and obvious reasons, which come from Holy Scripture. Scripture teaches that faith is a gift of God, which He gives out of His grace, through means of His Word. Since He has chosen to deal with us through the means of His Word, rather than spontaneously in other ways, we need to gather around the means He has provided so He can give us His gifts. Thomas Maschke writes in his book, Gathered Guests, the following:

“Worship is God’s service to us as His gathered guests and our faith-full response to Him in Christ. Worship is also an opportunity to grow and develop as a community and for the community to be empowered to go out into the world. Therefore, Lutheran worship can be described as being upward, downward, outward, and inward…Lutheran worship is encounter, expression, education, and evangelism[2].”

Confessional Lutheranism also teaches that man is converted by God, and not by an act of man's will, i.e., making a decision to repent and believe. American Evangelicalism, influenced heavily by revivalism beginning with the Second Great Awakening, generally teaches that conversion is an act of man's will – we decide to believe. What you believe about conversion has a great impact on how you worship. If you believe that conversion happens because you decide to be converted and that God speaks to you directly through your thoughts and feelings, rather than by the external word, then you will worship accordingly. Rather than focusing on delivering God’s Word to the people, as God has called His servants to do, so that God can do His work through that Word, the focus will be on man and what he is supposed to do. The service of Word and Sacrament becomes a service of emotion and decision. It must; there is no way around such a change. In American Evangelicalism, the worship space, the music, the actions of the “worship team,” the message delivered, are all geared toward moving the hearer emotionally so that they make the proper decision to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, by the power of their will. 

I wouldn’t expect American Evangelicals, who have differing beliefs about conversion, the will, worship and the church gathering, to worship in a traditional, liturgical way. To do so would cause friction between what they believe and how those beliefs are manifest through worship; to do so would undermine their theological teachings, and be ineffective in eliciting the desired emotional response. 

Why do so many Confessional Lutherans, then, want to abandon their Christian heritage – the liturgy, which has been preserved and handed down to us through many centuries – and worship in a way that undermines their confession of faith? I suspect that the reason is perceived success.

The reason so many Lutheran congregations subjected themselves to such theological dreck as 40 Days of Purpose is that it looks like it works. If you measure success in terms of backsides in the stadium-style seats, then I suppose it does work. All you have to do is search "Willow Creek" on the internet. The sleek, professionally-produced, website of Willow Creek Community Church showcases all of the fruits of the American Evangelical style of worship and evangelism. The first image presented to the visitor is an enormous crowd in what appears to be some type of arena. The arena, which is actually the worship space (what Christians from a by-gone era would have called the sanctuary), is filled to capacity and has a stage with a rock band in the center as it's focal point. 

Compare this exciting scene, charged with emotion, to the worship service of the average Confessional Lutheran Church. 30 or 40 people (if we are generous) gather inside a church building and sit in long, semi-comfortable wooden pews. Hymns are sung, prayers are recited, and a man in a dress gives a lecture. The people shuffle to the front, and the man in the dress feeds them a cracker and a bit of wine. There is more singing and reciting. Finally, the people are dismissed in an orderly fashion by ushers, and that's all there is until next week. There is no emotion, no excitement. There is no experience to excite the senses and give the feeling that the worshipper has had an encounter with the Almighty. 

This view, of course, is not true; the ancient liturgical worship is not as many perceive it. From a worldly perspective, this type of worship appears foolish and worthless. This seems to be how many of my Evangelical friends see liturgical worship. If man is converted by an act of his own will, if he must be convinced to make a decision, then this is, indeed, all liturgical worship is. But, here we have no continuing city, and God uses the foolish things of this world to make this world’s wise into fools. Christ comes to us, as he has promised, in his Word and Sacraments. In the Lord's Supper, He gives us His very body and blood to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of our sins. His Word, which is living and active, permeates every part of the divine service. It is read. It is in the music we sing, in every portion of the liturgy we recite, in the words of the sermon preached by our faithful pastor, in the furniture and decorations of the sanctuary around us. We come to gather around Word and Sacrament, not to do some good work for God, or to be convinced to dedicate (or rededicate) our lives to Christ but to receive what he has promised to give us – the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

Many Confessional Lutherans, however, look at the large numbers of people attending megachurches, such as Willow Creek, and compare their "success" with the numerical failure of their own modest congregation. Something must be done. Have they a band? Let's get a band. Have they abandoned the liturgy? Let's get rid of it too. The problem is, it takes a lot of resources to “do worship” the way a place like Willow Creek does. The emotional manipulation can only work if the show is produced properly. Willow Creek, with a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars, can put on what amounts to a rock concert every week. St. Nobody's Evangelical Lutheran Church, which has 150 parishioners, cannot. In the end, the Confessional Lutheran congregation that abandons the liturgy for contemporary worship ends up not being able to do it as well as the Evangelical megachurch down the road. Now, in addition to undermining their confession of faith, they have a "worship experience" that is awful and uncomfortable for the parishioners. Those who want the emotional manipulation will move on to a place where their “felt needs” can be met. Those who remain may return to the liturgy, but the congregation will have been divided and weakened, and it will be that much harder for them, from an economic standpoint, to remain in operation. 

This is not merely a disagreement over a style of worship. How we worship expresses and effects what we believe, and vice versa. Confessional Lutherans must realize this. The sanctioning of contemporary worship practices by those in leadership positions in the LCMS indicates their departure from their confession of faith, not simply a disagreement over style (such as should we chant the liturgy or speak it). Peter Hitchens, in his book “The Rage Against God,” describes, in part, his return to the Christian Church. In one section, Mr. Hitchens writes about his search for what could be described as traditional, or liturgical worship, unspoiled by modern liberal influences. He, as many faithful and well-meaning churchmen of the Church of England had before him, thought that the stuffy Elizabethan language was the main problem people had with the worship of the church. He was to come to a different realization:

"I bicycled from place to place in search of citadels of the old worship. In one particularly lovely Oxfordshire church, I enquired of a priest – a cozy-looking, well-padded old gentleman – if they ever used the Prayer Book. He stared at me, his eyes hot with dislike. "Never!" he pronounced, and then almost spat out the words "I hate Cranmer's theology of penitence." This was one of those moments of abrupt realization…when the truth suddenly became clear to me. It was not the language they disliked (though they probably did dislike it too). It was what the words meant. The new, denatured, committee-designed prayers and services were not just ugly, but contained a different message, which was not strong enough or hard enough to satisfy my need to atone[3].”

Similarly, it isn’t simply the organ, or the hymns, or the vestments, or the language and structure of the liturgy that many proponents of contemporary worship dislike. It is what those things mean. 



End Notes

[1] I would say, just as a side note, that the other glaring difference between these two theologies is their view of the Sacraments and the place of the Sacraments within worship. Of course, all of these things are inter-related, and one's understanding of conversion, repentance, faith, and good works and obedience to God, etc. will have a significant influence on worship and the Sacraments.

[2] Thomas Maschke, Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2003. 20.

[3] Hitchens, Peter. The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Contemporary Worship: Not Fit for Lutheran Consumption

"Trust me, I'm an enthusiast!"

Charles "Crazy Eyes" Finney
When I was teaching at a Lutheran school, there was much discussion at our congregation about something called blended worship. The idea was, as sort of a compromise, the congregation could adopt aspects of contemporary worship into the liturgical framework. For example, the worship service would still be laid out according to the pattern of the divine service. Changes to each one of those elements of the divine service, however, might be made. For example, parts of the liturgy, such as the Kyrie or the Gloria, might be swapped out with other pieces of more popular and contemporary, music. The idea was that we could compromise with those in the congregation who wanted to move toward contemporary worship. We could still retain our Lutheran liturgical heritage, while "getting with the times." This would liven things up, it was argued (though not in those words), and make church more attractive to the youth. Of course, any and all praise and worship music would have to be screened by the pastor for doctrinal purity.

My church never adopted such nonsense. We did, however, spend many hours in agonizing conversation regarding what we could do to attract more people to the church, and keep people from leaving. If only we had the right music… If only we had the right worship service… If only our building were fancier… If only we had more programs for the kids… If only insert thing for us to do or change here, we will attract more people, we will keep more people, our children won't leave us when they grow up, and we will have enough money to keep the church going.

But is it our job to do all these things? Is it our job to “keep the church going?” No, at least not in the way this question is usually asked.

There is a problem with this frame of mind: It is not Lutheran. And, when I say it is not Lutheran, I mean that it is not biblical. Many LCMS parishes are in financial difficulty, and many have closed. Enrollment at our day schools in many places is dwindling. Well-meaning people want to know what they can do to stop these terrible things from happening. We look around us at our American evangelical neighbors and seem to see quite a different situation. We see large modern-looking buildings (which no confessional Lutheran would ever mistake for a church) filled to capacity on Sunday mornings. We watch popular TV preachers filling former sports arenas with people week after week, and drawing in millions of dollars per year (I’m looking at you, Joel Osteen). We look at what they're doing, and we think, if we adopt a little of that methodology, perhaps our churches will fill up as well.

This idea couldn't be more wrong. The way we worship directly reflects what we believe theologically, and vice versa.

We have believed the lie that worship style, and our pastor's personality is what will keep people in our churches and make new Christians. In reality, there is only one thing which will really do that: God's Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament. I am convinced that this is why we allow so much of the nonsense that goes on in our parishes to continue. We are infected with American Fundagelicalism.

I'm not talking about fixing an out of tune organ or trying to build a better relation between pastor and congregation. No right-thinking person would say that a congregation must use a broken and out of tune organ because an organ is the only appropriate instrument to use in worship. If the organ were broken, we would push in the piano from the fellowship hall. We would sing a cappella. We might even, in an homage to Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr, break out the guitar… Or, if you're me, the accordion...Or whatever would facilitate the preaching of Law and Gospel through the liturgy, the reception of the gifts we are given there, and the teaching of doctrine to the congregation through our hymnody.

This brings me to the heart of the issue: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. That's a $.25 Latin phrase which means, "law of praying, law of believing." In other words, how you pray (worship) influences how you believe (theology and doctrine). It also works the other way around. The way you worship influences what you believe. How could it not?

Consequently, if one worships in a manner which is contrary to one's doctrine, one’s doctrine will begin to change.

Confessional Lutherans cannot adopt aspects of contemporary worship such as the music, the building layout, and the manner of dress for the participants, just to name a few things. By doing so, we confess by our actions something that we do not believe, and something that is not taught in the Scripture: Man is saved by a decision of his own will, and that confirmation of saving faith comes through an inner, personal, private, emotional experience with God.

There are those who would say that "modern" or "alternative" or "blended" worship practices (henceforth here to be called Contemporary Worship) can be substituted for the liturgy at will as this is simply a matter of adiaphora. They are wrong. The types of musical instrumentation used in Christian worship has changed a lot throughout the centuries. Indeed, to a large extent, the instruments are immaterial to worship. The thing that is important is what a style of worship teaches doctrinally. Liturgical worship has developed in the church over the last two millennia. It emphasizes the biblical truth that God comes to us, not we to him. It teaches us that God gives us his gifts out of his grace. Contemporary Worship does just the opposite. Contemporary worship focuses the worshipper on himself and his feelings. It treats him like a consumer, appealing to his will, and manipulating his emotions so that he finally makes a decision to accept Christ.

Contemporary Worship practices are designed to manipulate emotions. They were intended to bring the person to a place where they would have a "come to Jesus moment" and make a decision to become a believer. Contemporary Worship practices are based in, teach, and reinforce, the ideas that 1) conversion happens because of an act of the person's will, 2) that man can cooperate with God before his conversion, and 3) that our faith is confirmed by how we feel. This is great if you happen to be a non-denominational sacrament-denying Pelagian Arminian, but Contemporary Worship has absolutely no place in a Confessional Lutheran church.

What we know today as Contemporary Worship is a product of American Christianity. I believe it can be traced back to a man named Charles Finney. He was a revival preacher during the Second Great Awakening. Finney is sometimes called the father of modern revivalism. Charles Finney was a Presbyterian minister in America. He advocated for "new measures" to jar complacent people from their indifference toward religion. He taught that conversion, rather than being something God does to a person through the means of His Word, was something man must be convinced to do. To get a person "saved," Finney taught that preaching and worship style should manipulate the person emotionally. Preaching and worship style should drive a person on toward their decision to give their heart to Jesus.

A minister should never introduce innovations that are not called for. If he does they will embarrass him. He cannot alter the Gospel; that remains the same. But new measures are necessary, from time to time, to awaken attention and bring the Gospel to bear upon the public mind. And then a minister ought to know how to introduce new things, so as to create the least possible resistance or reaction…Suppose I were preaching on the subject of Temperance, and that I should first show the evils of intemperance, and bring up the drunkard and his family, and show the various evils produced, till every heart is beating with emotion[1].

The church, he taught, was cold and dead. It was stuck in the mire of old-fashioned forms and man-made creeds. New measures must be used to initiate revival where people can have a genuine conversion experience. Such an authentic conversion experience would, according to Finney, be marked by an inner emotional response.

If you say to him [the anxious soul], “There is the anxious seat, come out and avow your determination to be on the Lord’s side,” and if he is not willing to do so small a thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything, and there he is, brought out before his own conscience. It…prevents a great many spurious conversions…The church has always felt it necessary to have something of the kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles baptism answered this purpose…And in modern times, those who have been violently opposed to the anxious seat have been obliged to adopt some substitute, or they could not get along in promoting a revival. Some have adopted the expedient of inviting the people who were anxious for their souls to stay for conversation after the rest of the congregation had retired. But what is the difference?[2]

A lot of what Charles Finney taught about worship can be seen in American evangelicalism today. Consequently, American evangelicalism, from where we borrow many contemporary worship practices, most notably music and “worship space” design, does not view the gathering of the visible church in the same way as confessional Lutheranism.

American evangelicalism sees the worship service as a public meeting into which we, the initiated (Christians), are to coax the uninitiated (non-Christians). At this meeting, we are to project the right image to them, just as we do in our everyday life, to make our religion more desirable to them. The preaching, the mood, and the worship space are intended to play upon their emotions as well. Everything is designed to elicit an emotional response urging the "seeker" or, as Finney might say, the anxious soul, to give his heart to Christ. To Finney, the extent to which the preacher is able to excite the emotions of his hearers is the degree to which he will be successful in converting sinners. Internal emotional experience is the proof of genuine conversion, rather than the promise of God. 

Look at the Methodists. many of their ministers are unlearned, in the common sense of the term, many of them taken right from the shop or the farm, and yet they have gathered congregations and pushed their way, and won souls everywhere. Wherever the Methodists have gone, their plain, pointed and simple, but warm and animated mode of preaching has always gathered congregations. Few Presbyterian ministers have gathered so large assemblies, or won so many souls…we must have exciting, powerful preaching, or the devil will have the people, except what the Methodists can save[3].

This all culminates in the person finally proving the genuineness of their decision. In Finney's day that was having these converts sit on the anxious seat, where they would be preached at and prayed for until the conversion was fully affected[4]. The modern “crusade,” with its emotionally manipulative music and persuasive speakers, as well as the televangelists, are the direct descendants of Finney’s anxious seat.

Scripture teaches that, through his natural powers, man does nothing whatsoever to effect his conversion or assist in it. He is incapable of accepting the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). These things, i.e. believing that you are dead in sin and that Christ died to save you, are, as St. Paul says, spiritually discerned. The unregenerate man cannot understand or accept these things because he is, just as St. Paul described him, spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-10). These notions are foolishness to him.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:18-24).

Confessional Lutherans believe, teach and confess the same:

But the question is about the effective cause [of conversion]. Who works this [the perception of sin and acceptance of the promise of grace in Christ] in us? How does a person have this? How does he get it? Therefore, this teaching informs us that, since the natural powers of mankind cannot do anything or help toward it (1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 3:5), God, out of His infinite goodness and mercy, comes to us. He causes His Holy Gospel to be preached. The Holy Spirit desires to work and accomplish this renewal in us. Through preaching and meditation on His Word God kindles faith and other godly virtues in us. They are the Holy Sprit’s gifts and works alone (FC SD II 71-72)[5].

Believing this Biblical truth about the condition of man and the working of the Holy Spirit, we worship in a way which confesses it. The first thing we do is to confess that we are poor, miserable sinners. Then we hear the word of forgiveness spoken to us by our pastor, as from God Himself. Then we enter into the Service of the Word. We sing His Word in the Introit, in the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Psalms, the vast majority of all the other parts of the liturgy, and in the hymns. We listen to the reading of His Word, according to a set schedule, so that we learn, over time, all the things which God would teach us (that’s doctrine). Then we hear our pastor preach God’s Word. All of the while we are gathered around God’s Word we are passively receiving God’s gifts of repentance, forgiveness, and faith in Christ – all things which God works in us[6]. Then, when our pastor is finished preaching Christ into our hearts, we gather at the Lord’s Table to have the Word placed into our mouths in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper[7]. Then, with the words of Simeon on our lips, we depart in peace, our eyes having seen His salvation. The focus of the liturgy is on Christ crucified. It is all designed to point us to him and to deliver to us the gifts of God which we are unable to take for ourselves, through the means which God has appointed – Word and Sacrament. The only time in the liturgy when we spend any time focusing on ourselves is during confession and absolution, and the prayers. The first shows us that we are wretched and sinful; the other shows us that we are helpless.

Contemporary worship causes us to confess something unbiblical, in the name of “keeping the church going,” and in the end, it can’t even accomplish that goal. Joel Osteen may fill Lakewood to capacity, but he points the people to themselves rather than to Christ. Is it better to have 10,000 gathered where Christ is excluded, or to have two or three gathered in Christ’s name around Word and Sacrament?

God is in charge. He causes the church to grow, when and where he wills. Pastors are called to preach the Word and to administer the Sacraments – to feed the flock. The people are called and gathered by God to be fed. Christ crucified is at the heart of this gathering. Anything which serves to change our focus, which contemporary worship does, has no place. Scripture teaches that God grants his Spirit to no one except through or with the preceding outward Word, and God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments[8] (Galatians 3:2-5; Hebrews 1:1-2). Far from being something neither commanded nor forbidden, worship style is inseparable from the doctrine you confess.

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[1] Finney, Charles G. The Works of Charles G. Finney: Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Lectures on Systematic Theology, Sermons on Gospel Themes, Lectures to Professing Christians (4 Books With Active Table of Contents) Kindle Edition. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle.
[2] ibid. Location 19859-19889 
[3] ibid. Location 19975, 19982 
[4] ibid. Location 19856 
[5] McCain, Paul Timothy, ed. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2005. 
[6] Acts 5:31; Ephesians 2:1-10; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 
[7] This should give us a new appreciation and understanding for Cranmer’s collect, wherein he writes, “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.” "1928 Book of Common Prayer." 1928 Book of Common Prayer Home Page. Accessed February 03, 2017. http://www.episcopalnet.org/1928bcp/
[8] SA III viii 3, 10. McCain, Paul Timothy, ed. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2005.