Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Primer on Worship and Reformation by Douglas Wilson: a Book Review

"What's wrong with America" is a common topic of both sermons and conversation among Conservatives, and has been for a number of years now. It is understood that the problem has vaguely to do with a pushing of Christianity to the periphery of American life and, as nature abhors a vacuum, other clearly non-Christian ways of thinking and living have rushed in to fill the empty space. This has left Conservatives scrambling to find any available piece of real estate, lest they find themselves completely pushed off the edge of the map. And so the battlefields of the culture war we are familiar with - abortion, homosexuality, prayer in school, etc. - have been the places we have put up our flags. Yet all the while our demeanor betrays that even we believe each of these battles is our last stand, and that we might as well concede that the battle isn't the LORD's after all, let alone ours.

In all our attempts, well meant and otherwise, to regain the culture, could it be that we have been going about it all wrong? Douglas Wilson thinks so. In his book A Primer on Worship and Reformation, Wilson sketches what he believes to be some of the chief components necessary to cleaning up the cultural mess we're in. And the subtitle, "Recovering the High Church Puritan", gives us more than a hint towards knowing where he derives those components.

Wilson spends the first two chapters discussing the circus that is Evangelicalism and how it became what it is today. Overrun by consumerism and triviality, the church has drifted far from what Scripture indicates it should be. This drift is no more noticeable elsewhere than it is in the worship of the church. But worship is not isolated from the rest of life. Rather, a person is what he worships; or, to put it another way, culture is worship externalized. And what the Evangelical church has done, by and large, is to replace the worship of the Triune God with the worship of the individual person. We want a church that reflects who we are rather than who God is, because we are comfortable with who we are. An encounter with God, who is wholly Other, can't help but put us at some dis-ease. And who wants that? Certainly not the average self-contented American, whether he be a professing Christian or otherwise.

Believing that the modern Evangelical church is a picture of the Late Medieval Roman Catholic Church, Wilson looks back to the first generation of English Puritans, who sought to bring the Church of England fully out of her Roman Catholic past, as providing the model for reformation needed in the church today. Wilson corrects the common misunderstanding that the Puritans were prudes and killjoys, and, after laying out the Biblical worldview of the Puritans that we should imitate, spends the rest of the book discussing how these things should be applied in practice.

The first of these concerns the question of evangelism. Much guilt has been heaped upon believers in the Evangelical church for several decades, all based on the belief that God has given the task of evangelism to every believer. It is true, Wilson says, that every believer should be prepared to explain his faith whenever an opportunity arises. But that is not the same thing as suggesting, as is often done in the Evangelical church, that every believer is to make sharing the gospel his primary vocation. This, in fact, is something Scripture nowhere says. Some people are gifted as evangelists. But some are called simply to work faithfully in their jobs, take care of their children, and participate in worship at their local churches on Sunday. This should provide some measure of relief to anyone who has ever felt guilty for not presenting the gospel to others on a regular basis.

The one area in which God calls all His children to participate in the building of His Kingdom is in the corporate worship of the church. But to do this, we must regain an understanding of what "corporate" means. We tend to approach both worship and Scripture with a "me and Jesus" attitude. But primary to the Christian life is the covenant, through which we are united not only to God, but to one another. We are united with Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant, and being freed from the Law, we are to come boldly and reverently, with joy and thanksgiving, to worship at the feet of King Jesus, where He sits enthroned in the Heavens. In Christ, we are united, and therefore there are no solo Christians.

We come together to hear God's Word preached in worship. By "Word", we are not to understand this to be either a pep talk, a laundry list, or a theological lecture. Theology is involved. The practical teachings of Scripture are to be given. And where Scripture encourages, preachers are to encourage. But preaching is to be carried out on Scripture's terms. Preaching must be alive. It must tear down and build up. It must be filled with Biblical language. And, as Scripture is, it must be filled with metaphor.

God not only gave us His Word, He gave us His Table as a way through which He nourishes us. When we partake of this table, we partake of Christ Himself. Therefore, this partaking should be as frequent as the preaching of the Word - that is, weekly.

A recovery of Biblical worship will mean a return to singing the Psalms. This means entire Psalms, not just the snippets one finds in Contemporary Worship Music. This also means all of the Psalms, not just the ones we more readily relate to. Singing should be passionate and loud, orderly and reverent. And it should be done by the congregation, not by a group of professionals putting on a performance.

Sunday is to be set aside as the Sabbath. It is the Lord's Day, which He has given to us for both rest and worship. But it isn't a day for fasting, rather for feasting. Carrying this out in detail will require much careful thought. But God has given the Sabbath to us as a gift, and therefore we should observe it gratefully.

Then there is the question of the children of the church. Are they actually "of the church", that is, of the covenant, or do they fit into some separate category? Wilson answers with the former. We are not to try to look into the hidden things of God to find out if we are elect. Nor are we to look to our own works to confirm that we are justified. Rather, we are to look to the perfect righteousness of Christ, promised to us in the covenant, as the means of our salvation. As this salvation is found in the covenant, it belongs to all those in the covenant, including our children. And so covenant children are neither to be treated as sinless, nor as "vipers in diapers". They are united to Christ. On this basis, we are to raise them as Christians, and to include them in the corporate worship service of the church.

At a short 76 pages, A Primer on Worship and Reformation fits the bill as the introduction is title professes it to be. There are few other books available that cover the same ground it does, let alone so skillfully, and none that I know of that do so in such little space. This will make it handy to give to friends who are just beginning to wrestle with the matters it discusses. No doubt much of its contents will be controversial to many. But in the face of Evangelicalism's regular failure to impact the culture, one can hardly justify taking Doug Wilson's book lightly.


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