Monday, December 06, 2004

A Presbyterian Appropriation of Advent


Here is a version of a paper I wrote over a question about Advent observance at Church.
What is a Christian committed to the Reformation Tradition to make of Advent? In brief, it offers to Reformed Christians the same things it does for all, an opportunity to redeem the time, to prepare for the coming of Christmas, to give praise and thanksgiving for Christ's incarnation, to meditate on its significance by thematically ordering our Scripture readings, focusing our prayers, and having symbolic reminders of it. What more could anyone want? However, it may do us well to see Reformed worship through the eyes of the covenant in order to appreciate the celebration of Advent within it.
Lex Orandi-Lex Credendi
Common to the convictions of most writers on Reformed worship is this premise: the design of our Lord’s Day service should be appropriately shaped according to our theological convictions. I suspect, few would deny that the actual outworking of this conviction has been executed with mixed success. Someone surfing the web sites of various Reformed congregations within the United States will everything from hell-fire & brimstone revival services, to casual yet visually dazzling multi-media services, to a high church Eucharistic services.

Incongruous, as it may seem, the same Reformed Christians who are staunchly united on the theological details Presbyterian doctrine will often become quite divided and confused as to how they should conceive of worship. Furthermore, many congregations have little appreciation of a tradition that reaches beyond the walls of their own buildings and they usually don't go farther back than the way grandmother used to do things. The required liturgies that were characteristic of Reformed services before the Westminster Assembly are no longer well known do not much affect the way we currently construe our services.
The Westminster Asembly was significant in opening up possibilities as to how we structure our Lord's day services. Unlike some traditions we are not bound to follow a specific order of service such as John Calvin or others http://public.csusm.edu/public/guests/rsclark/Liturgies.html . Our denomination has understood that Jesus Christ as Lord of his church has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship but has given the church a large degree of liberty in this matter.

Book of Church Order 47-6. The Lord Jesus Christ has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship but, in the interest of life and power in worship, has given His Church a large measure of liberty in this matter. It may not be forgotten, however, that there is true liberty only where the rules of God’s Word are observed and the Spirit of the Lord is, that all things must be done decently and in order, and that God’s people should serve Him with reverence and in the beauty of holiness. From its beginning to its end a service of public worship should be characterized by that simplicity which is an evidence of sincerity and by that beauty and dignity which are a manifestation of holiness.


The net result is that the worship service within various congregations are considerably diverse. An unfortunately effect is that it would be difficult for a contemporary observer to ascertain the priorities of Reformed theology from its expressions in many Reformed churches. More unnerving and detrimental is the potential that our Reformed theological premises are not at work in the liturgical actions of these services. An underlying assumption throughout much of the Church through history has been that the doctrinal presuppositions of a given Christian community will exercise influence upon their practice of worship. This is sometimes communicated through the Latin phrase lex orondi- lex credendi (the rule of prayer i.e, liturgy is the norm or reflection of the rule of our confessed belief). As this works itself out in Protestantism is clearly a two-way street. Our confession should regulate our worship is prominent in Presbyterian however, it cannot be denied that how we worship will inevitably affect how Christians view its beliefs. The uptake from this is that Reformed theological underpinnings are not always easily recognizable from our Lord's Day services. A legitimate question then arises as to what is being communicated by our worship. Liturgy will influence belief even if the precise way in which that will proceed is not obvious or clear.
This principle can be seen clearly enough in the practice of the Lord's Supper. Why do so many Reformed congregations not celebrate the Table on a weekly basis? Consistently the same few response are always given which inevitably boil down to beliefs about it that do not reflect and in some ways contravene our explicit doctrinal standards. When the church has firmly embraced our doctrinal commitments and Calvinistic tradition http://www.the-highway.com/supper1_Calvin.html that the Lord's Table was a means of confering the saving benefits of Christ we celebrated it weekly. Few congregants within our tradition any longer embrace such a rich mean-of-grace theology. Are we really to believe that our shift in liturgical practice to monthly or quarterly celebration has not been a factor in the abandonment of our confession?
Covenant as Organizing Structure

So what is it that gives Reformed theology its particular shape and structure? The answer according to our Confession is the covenant. It is the most basic and fundamental designation of how God relates to humanity. The heart of our relationship with God is forged in His covenant relationship with humanity. In fact, covenant is the only lense through which our confessional standards have theologically viewed God’s interaction with man. It then only makes sense that Reformed worship should be shaped by the covenant just as its theological premises have been.

That God deals with humanity within covenant is a profoundly biblical concept. The term itself occurs over three hundred times in the Scriptures in order to describe our relationship to God as his people. Unfortunately, there is no simple consensus definition for or single passage of scripture that will lay out an overall explanation. Sometimes the covenant is viewed in terms of either of the agreement that a king would make with a subject people, or sometimes of the marriage bond between husband and wife. Nevertheless, we have numerous stories of how God has entered into covenant relations and these stories present a basic template of how covenant functions.

The structure of how covenant functions has been the subject of much rigorous research. The basic structure that can be discerned in all biblical covenants is that there are two parties and two parts: (1)God who initiates the covenant with his people and through it gives blessing and (2) People who must make appropriate preparations to profitably receive its benefits. We could expand our description of the covenant to include five dimensions:
  • The Lord initiates an association with the beneficiaries. This is not an arrangement amongst equals, God is the one who grants the covenant and is the absolute sovereign one in it.
  • The Lord separates the beneficiaries from what they once were. He transforms them from that which was old into something new and gives them a new name.
  • The Lord demands loyalty from the beneficiaries. He provides ethical stipulations for the beneficiaries as they must be righteous to enjoy the blessings of the covenant.
  • The Lord provides ritual signs and seals for the beneficiaries. The covenant relationship is always memorialized in symbolic form which typically provides the context for dispensing blessings for loyalty and curses for ungrateful disobedience.
  • The Lord arranges for the future succession of beneficiaries. God intends for the covenant to continue from generation to generation in godly families to pass the blessing on to the future




Our Lord’s Day service should be appropriately shaped to reflect these theological conviction. We will do well then to ground a few basic conceptions of worship within the framework of covenant in order to better appreciate the potential role of Advent for a Presbyterian congregation.


It is the Lord who gathers us.


Our Lord’s Day service should be appropriately shaped to reflect these theological conviction. We will do well then to ground a few basic conceptions of worship within the framework of covenant in order to better appreciate the potential role of Advent for a Presbyterian congregation.

In our Reformed tradition it is always the Lord who makes covenant with humanity. As Presbyterians when we have spoken of covenant we historically emphasized the great gulf that exists between the Creator and the creature. It is important then that we recognize that we are not God’s equals in the covenant arrangement. The Confession declares that it is on account of the great distance between God and us that we would never be able to experience any blessed enjoyment of him unless he voluntarily choose to lower himself to privilege us with his grace.

Our corporate worship along with the organizational structure God has place upon the church is for the very purpose that we are gathered before God in order that we may be perfected as saints and edified as the church. In our worship, we recognize that God comes nears and calls his people out of the world to gather us into his presence. It is in recognition of this that we explicitly remind ourselves at the start the worship service with the words, "We gather together in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." This is at the very heart of our identity as the church. Our confession and Book of Church Order are explicit on this issue
. Corporate worship is not merely a gathering of God’s children with each other, but before all else, it is a meeting of the triune God with His chosen people. Our confession also understands that God’s presence in the worship service not merely by virtue of divine omnipresence but is instead present in a much more intimate way; that is, by way of his covenant relationship with us.


The Lord initiates and gives when we gather


In our Reformed tradition the Lord always takes the initiative; he gives we receive. Some pseudo-Reformed perspectives, however, have gotten this basic premise completely backwards. They would wrongly insist that worship is about our giving, not about our receiving. This erroneous perspective usurps God’s role as beneficent and places him in the role of beneficiary. Too often the false picture has been presented that we were once seekers of God’s grace, who- having gotten saved- are now givers of praise. To entertain such a possibility is to assume that once God has worked redemption in us, we can respond to him without having to rely on his continual saving work. That, of course, is exactly what Reformed theology denies.

You probably have heard some well meaning person say that in Reformed worship we come to give praise to God taking no interest in what we might get from him. Ironically, this is a quasi-Arminian perspective and is at best without biblical warrant. We are created and dependent beings who must continually receive both our life and redemption from God. For us, as creatures of God, there can be no such thing as "disinterested praise." To deny this premise is to blur the Creator-creature distinction and is the height of arrogance. We simply cannot love or praise God for who he is apart from what he has given us or what we continue to receive from him. We are not his equals. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that we are not dependent upon him. Without a firm grasp on this our worship will inevitably degenerates into Pelagianism with a Calvinistic veneer.

So what are we given? We are given his forgiveness, his Word, his nourishment, his benediction, etc. The Divine Service is primarily God's action: he calls us into his presence; he declares our sins forgiven; he speaks his word of comfort, rebuke, and encouragement; he feeds us at his table; and he charges us with a mission, gives his benediction and sends us back into the world. Of course, at each point, we also respond: when God invites us in, we enter and confess our sinfulness; when he absolves our sins, we praise his grace in his Son; we tremble at his threats and believe his promises; we eat and drink at his banquet; and when he sends us out, we go. In all this we acknowledge that our responses depend on the Spirit's work.


The Lord gives in Word


In our Reformed tradition God's service is to us and an emphasis within that has always been on the Word as it is read, sung, and preached. Our Confessional documents are clear that God has ordained the preaching of the Word for the salvation of humanity and that through the sermon and the minister’s public reading of the Scriptures God speaks directly to the congregation. In preaching we do not hear about Christ, but we hear him. The difference is clear; when you hear about someone, that person is not present, however, in preaching we hear not the Pastor’s voice, but the voice of Christ. In our worship the voice of God comes from outside of us, as an externum verbum. That is to say we hear the Word of God. In the Divine Service God himself addresses us-through the voice of another. Hence, in Reformed theology, we affirm that the Lord's Spirit ordinarily and normally works through the instrument of the Pastor’s words.

In some circles, private devotional reading and study are the most fundamental ways in which God speaks to us in his Word. According to the Scriptures, though, the Spirit binds himself to communicate life by means of the human voice, especially as that voice speaks the Word or the gospel to us. This is what John Calvin calls a verbum sacramentale ("a sacramental word"; Inst. 4:14:4) i.e., a clearly proclaimed Gospel message through the voice of the minister is sacramental.

It is important to realize that according to the Scriptures the Spirit's work is not confined to an inner, isolated work in the soul of an individual. Unfortunately there has been a tendency for many to think of God’s spiritual renewal of people within a contemptuously anti-communal and highly individualistic framework. The focus of a renewed spiritual life is, they would have you believe, placed predominately within the framework of private quiet times. We are then taught to listen for some inner voice and expect the Spirit's guidance through mystical promptings and feelings where it's just me, God, and the Bible. This is not the biblical way nor is it the way of our Reformation heritage. There Spirit's work is ineffaceably social as God and we in his image are social beings. He uses words and actions. He uses human words, words that we speak to others as his words.


The Lord gives in Baptism & the Lord’s Supper.


In our Reformed tradition we emphasize God’s service to us is, like the Word, ordinarily conveyed in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s table. Our tradition embraces the rich means-of-grace theology of the Scriptures. Hence, Word and sacrament are the main foci of worship, and both are God's means of graciously giving the benefits of Christ to us. Worship, by implication, is not mainly about what we do before God's face; it is mainly about what God is doing to and in us.

We speak of "means of God’s grace," to emphasize that God is the one bestowing life through water, bread, and wine. As such, it is a useful reminder not to make idols of the elements. We also speak this way to emphasize that believers receive real benefit from baptism and the Supper. As such, it is a helpful corrective to feeble theologies that are widespread in the modern church. In our Reformed tradition we have highlighted the covenantal and interpersonal character of the sacramental event by referring to them as "signs and seals of the covenant of grace." Therefore, the administration of the sacraments are moments of personal encounter with the living God.

One of the most harmful notions ever foisted upon the Church is this idea that God normally communicates his presence immediately to the soul of man, by-passing all outward, physical means. Yes, it is true, that the Lord is free to work outside of his constituted means in extraordinary cases as he sees fit. But this only means that the Lord ordinarily works just as he has promised through his appointed instruments of the audible words of his ministers, through the water of Baptism, and through the bread and wine of Communion.


It is the People who are served


In our Reformed tradition it is the people who receive. Reformed worship involves our reception of God’s blessings which are responded to with our thanksgiving and petitions. We will always be receivers and petitioners before God. Our posture as recipients is as ineradicable as our nature as dependent creatures. We must by our very nature be served by God. Recognizing this is true spirituality, indeed, it is the presupposition of all true corporate worship. It is faith's posture before our all-sufficient, beneficent Lord. Christian worship provides the occasion for God's service to the church, that is, in the liturgy God serves us.

Unfortunately with regard to worship the terminology we use to describe what happens on the Lord's Day can be confusing. We've inherited the designation "worship service," which easily introduces confusion. "Service" comes from the Latin serviium, as in servitium Dei ("the service of God" or "God's service"). Classically, the "Divine Service" was primarily thought of as God's service to us (the forgiveness of sins, the service of the Word, the Sacraments, etc.) and our service of response back to God. We of course are required to respond in faith but even our faith is viewed as a gift or, if you will, a saving grace which is brought about by the Holy Spirit. God gives and we are always on the receiving end and even when we respond back to God, we give only out of what we have first received. Thus, God's operations on us come first and our actions are in grateful response to God's gracious activity. The fundamental purpose of the corporate Sunday service, therefore, is to be the place where God himself distributes his life-giving Word and Sacraments and where we prepare and receive the benefits responding back with faithful gratitude.

Ultimately this is the problem with various modern and pseudo-reformed perspectives on worship. Quite simply they have a liturgical theology that denies, at least implicitly, that the Church’s Lord’s Day Service is God's ministry to us. It is also a denial that the Word and Sacraments are to be received as the effectual means of our salvation. Much that takes place in contemporary worship is simply not centered on the true God who gives us the means of salvation in the Divine Service. Instead the church is too often viewed as a religious service industry; the equivalent to a spiritual Wal-Mart in which people are conceived of as religious consumers. The task of the church is then outfitted to make itself attractive to a specific demographic segment and entice newcomers with means that can degenerate into forms of entertainment complete with puppet shows, drama and pop music solos. The pastor is reduced to an entrepreneur or executive chairman who gives inspirational pep talks, providing cultural commentary and anecdotal self-help advice. In his duties he is called upon to optimizing the church’s human resources and provide a full-service set of activities for all ages and various interest groups. Of course these churches may sing, read the Bible, and pray but the structure and pathos of the services show little resemblance to the Scriptural protocols as contained in our Reformed Confessional documents.


The People Prepare For Worship


In our Reformed tradition we encourage the people of God to prepare themselves before coming to worship. In that worship is a face-to-face gathering with God in a covenant relationship our everyday business should be so ordered that we will not be hindered from participation in it as prescribed by the Holy Scriptures. This then forms part of the backdrop used by our Directory of Worship to insists that every person and family has the duty to be involved in public worship and to prepare for it by prayer, reading the Scriptures, and holy meditation.

We must refuse to be caught up in any conduct unbecoming to the place and occasion. It, therefore, behooves every person and family to come into God’s presence dutifully prepared. Our daily activities should be arranged in such a way that we may for a "season" lay them aside in order to sanctify the Sabbath or any other time the church authoritatively deems appropriate to celebrate certain special occasions or seasons.

Before we gather to meet with God and receive the benefits of holy communion with him we should pray for our own blessing and for the blessing of the others to attend and the ministry of the pastor. It is also appropriate that we upon entering the church take their seats in a decent and reverent manner, and engage in a silent prayer with a deep sense of awe at the thought of His perfect holiness and our own exceeding sinfulness . At the start of the service then it is important that we confess the fact the we were born in sin and that the pollution of it adheres to us. Hence, everyone is to prepare, before we get to church, as we are seated, and at the beginning of the service in order that we may be united in the gospel with one heart in all the parts of public worship until after the blessing of the benediction is pronounced. If we did not then what would we be communicating to the world about entering into the presence of a holy God?


In The Celebration of Advent People Prepare For Christmas


In our Reformed tradition the Church not only has the authority to administrate the Lord’s Day service but also to set aside other days, as it deems appropriate, to celebrate on any of the other six days or for seasonal occasions so long as they be used in a holy and devout manner.

The celebration of Advent is a way the Church encourages the people of God to prepare specifically for the celebration of Christmas. Advent is designed for waiting and watching. In our time of e-mail, instant messages, fast food, and general impatience, the very notion of waiting as a virtue is quite simplly not heard of much anymore. It's hard then to imagine a message more counter-cultural than that of Advent! During Advent Christ’s church confesses the wisdom that Jeremiah spoke of so long ago: "It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord" (Lam. 3:26). Advent observance is a quiet, peaceful oasis from the harried and hassled culture of this world which would have you, during their "shopping season" run in every direction at once. Rather than fussing and fuming about the commercialization of Christmas, the church quietly offers an alternate way of approaching December 25th by inviting us with our children to come away from the world to reflect on the promises of God!

Thus, one of the purpose of the church year, from a Presbyterian point of view, is to redeem the time. It does this by consecrating the various seasons of the year by the thematic organization of reading the word of God, prayers and other liturgical actions. This is designed to help prepare the people of God and provide an opportunity to give thanks and rejoice in what God has done in Christ. Used in this way it can be a great educational tool to teach the people the Bible and especially the life of Jesus Christ. We need not fear the Christian calendar. It has great didactic significance. The Christian year is ordered according to the life of Jesus Christ, from his birth to his ascension and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. It reminds us that as Christians we are in Christ. Each year we are reminded that the yearly cycle of our lives finds its true meaning and significance in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It gives us occasion to celebrate the mighty acts of God in the person of Jesus Christ!

As a result, during Advent, all we are doing is ordering our Scripture readings to highlight the theme of Jesus' coming, focusing our prayers on the faithfulness of God and his covenant promises, meditating on the significance of the Son of God's incarnation, and depicting with symbolic reminders these themes. Typically this is designed to help prepare us by waiting and watching in three directions.

  • The Church looks in the direction of those promises in Holy Scripture that the Messiah would come, that a virgin would conceive and bear a Son who is called Immanuel, God with us. These are the promises of Christmas.
  • The Church also watches for those ways by which Christ's life is present now in our midst: the offering of the benefits of Christ in the preaching of the Word of God and distribution of the Sacraments.
  • Finally, the Church watches with patience and hope for Christ's final coming in judgment. Then His word of judgment will clothe with eternal life all who believe in Him.


This world is surrounded by darkness. Advent calls this darkness to mind and penetrates this darkness with promises about the Light of life. While the world is immersed in preparations for the secular celebration of Christmas, Advent allows the Church time to prepare for rejoicing in the full glow of Christ's light shining in the darkness.

The Church prepares for that Light by observing the disciplines of Advent. These disciplines bring to the Church the nourishment that comes from the Lord's life.

  • Advent is a season for immersion in the words of Scripture, especially those promises of Christ's birth, of His life-giving presence in His Church through the Holy Sacraments, and of eternal life at His final coming
  • Advent is a season of confession and repentance. It allows the Church to see its own sin-filled darkness, confess its sin, and receive the Lord's forgiveness.
  • Advent is a season of fervent prayer, the Church repeating to the Lord His words that He will come again. The Church cries, Maranatha! Come, O Lord! Come quickly! (1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20)

2 Comments:

Blogger Tim said...

Thank you for this post. I'm currently leading a short study on Advent using Isaiah and the minor prophets, noticing that when they longed for the coming of the Messiah, they see not only His humiliation, but also His exaltation. We should do the same today, but it seems that most don't.

December 6, 2004 at 6:23 PM  
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