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TEXT: John 4:24
SUBJECT: Puritans #7: The Church and Public Worship
This afternoon, with the Lord's help, we'll continue our monthly study of the Puritans. The Puritans never formed their own denomination, but were found in all the English and American Churches, from about 1550 to 1700. They never claimed to "know it all"-and I would not make the claim for them. But they did think with a depth and a breadth that few modern believers can match. Thus, without following them blindly, we can learn from them. And ought to.
Thus far, we've studied them on work, money, sex, marriage, family, and preaching. Now we'll move on to another topic: The Puritan View of Church and Public Worship. The book we're using to guide us is Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. The author is Leland Ryken; the publisher is Zondervan; the date is 1986. The book is still in print and I cannot recommend it too highly. If you're intimidated by the Puritans, their old-fashioned words and run-on sentences, this is a good place to start.
WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
Because the Puritans tried to be clear in their thinking, they were fussy about defining their terms. Thus, before saying anything about what the Church does, they tell us what the Church is. John Davenport provides the fullest definition,
"It is a company of faithful and holy persons called
out of the world to fellowship with Jesus Christ, and
united in one congregation to Him as members to
their head, and one with another by a holy covenant
for mutual fellowship in holy worship and edification".
Most of us, I think, would agree with Davenport. But it's hard to understand how radical the idea was at the time. Puritanism appeared against the background of Roman Catholicism and The Church of England.
Catholics then-and now-equate the Church with the organization. To their way of thinking, the Church is not the people of God, but the Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, and Priests who dispense the grace of God to sinners through the sacraments.
The Puritans tore up this doctrine root and branch! They said that it makes sinners dependent on the Church and not Christ!
As for the Church of England? It has always occupied a middle ground between Catholicism and Puritanism. Its Confession defines the Church as
"A congregation of faithful men".
That's the formal doctrine. But, with its Real Presence in the Lord's Supper, its priesthood, its ceremony, costumes, sacred buildings, and so on, it leaves the impression-at least-that It is the Church and the people are only there to receive God's grace through its officers and ritual.
The Puritans said No! The Church is the People-not everyone who comes to worship on Sunday, of course, but, as William Gouge said,
"Those who inwardly and effectively,
by the Spirit, believe in Christ".
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH LOOK LIKE?
If this is what the Church is-the People of God-how can you tell it from others who make the same claim? Remember, there were cults in those days-not much different than the ones we have today. They all said they were God's people. How can you know that your church is God's Church-and not a synagogue of Satan?
The Puritans left no doubt. Following the Reformers, they said the Church is identified by three marks. Richard Sibbes tells us what they are,
"The outward marks whereby a true Christian Church
is known are the preaching of the Word purely,
ministering of the Sacraments sincerely, and eccle-
The Church is first identified with the pure preaching of God's Word. By "God's Word" here, they mean the Gospel. Because there is no salvation apart from the Gospel, there can be no church where the Gospel is not faithfully preached. If the Church is like a garden, then the Gospel is its source of water. Dry up the water and there is no garden; take away the Gospel, and there is no church.
The faithful preaching of God's Word must not be confused with infallibility. The Puritans did not believe that any man or group of men was above error. John Preston,
"Not to be capable of errors is the inseparable
attribute of God Himself which cannot be said
of any creature".
Not Pope, not priest, not presbyter! No one's understanding or preaching is perfect!
The Westminster Confession of Faith says,
"The purest churches under heaven are subject
both to mixture and error".
It is the Word preached purely-not perfectly-that identifies the Church of Christ.
The second mark of the True Church is "ministering the sacraments sincerely". The Sacraments, of course, are Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
This creates a real problem for Baptists. We baptize only believers and by immersion. The Puritans baptized believers and their children, either by sprinkling (in most cases) or by pouring. Does this mean they unchurched the Baptists?
Some of them, I think, did, in the heat of controversy. But their greatest thinker, John Owen, did not. One day, a friend saw him listening to the unschooled Baptist, John Bunyan. He asked Owen why a man of his learning would listen to a mere tinker. Owen's response is immortal,
"I would gladly give up all my learning
if I could but touch hearts like the tinker".
Under the right adminstration of the sacraments, I think, the Puritans really meant this: Baptism and the Lord's Supper are means of grace, but they do not necessarily convey salvation to everyone who shares in them. In other words, you're not saved by them. Churches that say you are, are not true churches.
Why not? Because Salvation by Sacrament nullifies the Gospel.
The third mark of a True Church is Ecclesiastic Discipline. If the Church is the People of God, then those who don't belong to God cannot be part of the Church. Either they're not let in at all or, if they are, they are put out after proving they're not saved by their heresies or immoral lives. That's what Church Discipline means. Without being perfect or even mature, the church is made up of
In summary, the Church is the People of God and it's recognized by Gospel preaching and holy living.
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH DO?
Now that we know what the Church is and what it looks like, the Puritans go on to tell us What the Church does.
Their short answer is: It worships God. Whatever benefit we get out of going to church, it is secondary to what God gets out of it. And that's worship.
Worship is the Church's first priority. How do we decide what goes into worship and what doesn't? Everyone would agree that some things are appropriate for public worship and other things aren't. But how do we make the call?
There are only three possible answers: tradition, personal preference, and God's Word.
The Roman Catholics (and to a lesser degree, the Church of England) arranged their services under the guidance of Tradition. They didn't say the Bible commands us to genuflect in the service, to make the sign of the cross, to wave the incense pot (or whatever they call that thing), to use holy water, and so on. But-they added-the Church has long done these things, holy men have always approved of them, and many have been blessed by them. And-to their way of thinking-that's good enough.
Evangelical Churches don't have much of that today, but our standard tends to be personal preference. The pastor wants it; the church likes it; the experts recommend it; or, it appeals to the unsaved.
The Puritans rejected both the authority of tradition and the spirit of the age! They said that-since it was God being worshiped in Church-it was up to Him to decide what to put in and what to leave out!
Martin Luther was not as strict as the Puritans, but long before they were born, he explained what was wrong with most worship-
"There is an amazing confusion of religious forms
in the world. This came about because all proceeded
without the Word of God, according to the opinion of
men. God does not want to be worshiped in any way
but that which He Himself prescribed".
If God is to be worshiped His way-and not ours-we have to know where to find His way. The Puritans tell us in words too plain to mistake,
"The Scripture is not a partial, but perfect rule of
faith and manners: Nothing is to be observed in
the Church.but what is contained in the Scriptures"
"Scripture contains all things necessary to be
practiced in the worship of God" (John Owen).
"The New Testament is absolutely perfect for
delivering the whole manner of God's worship"
God is to be worshiped His way-and His way is revealed in the Bible, especially in the New Testament!
This came to be known as The Regulative Principle. It is well summed up by William Bradshaw,
"They hold and maintain that the Word of God
contained in the writings of the Prophets and
Apostles is of absolute perfection, given by
Christ, the Head of the Church, to be unto the
Same the sole canon and rule of all matters
Of religion, and the worship and service of God
Whatseover. And whatsoever cannot be
Justified by said Word is unlawful".
God's Worship-in short-is contained in and limited to the Word of God.
In my opinion, some people have run amok with the doctrine. One Church, for example, forbids the use of musical instruments in worship; another insists we can use only One Cup at the Lord's Table, and so on. But if a few Christians are too picky about worship, the great majority of believers are not picky enough!
God's Worship God's Way.
HOW DID THE PURITAN DOCTRINE CHANGE WORSHIP?
Now that we know what they were aiming for and on what basis they made their decisions, it's good to ask: How did the Puritan Doctrine change the worship of the Church?
In short, it simplified things. Here's a string of quotes,
"I am of the opinion that all things in the church
should be pure, simple, and removed as far as
possible from the elements and pomps of this
If the religion be pure, spiritual, simple, and lowly,
As the Gospel most surely is, such must the face
Of ministry be."
"Our principal care and desire is to administer
the ordinances of Christ Himself in their native
purity and simplicity, without any dressing or
painting of human invention".
The Puritans simplified just about everything in the churches. For example, they simplified their
Ritual. The Catholics and the Church of England excelled in ceremony; their services were multi-media presentations-the Word was heard, bright colors were seen, the incense was smelled, holy water was felt, and the Wafer was eaten. The Puritans recoiled from the extravaganza. Richard Greenham said,
"The more ceremonies, the less truth".
They did not follow the Church Calendar with its required feast days and fast days. Again, Greenham said,
"Our Easter Day, our Ascension Day, our
Whitsuntide is every Lord's Day".
They rejected all the gymnastics of the Catholic service. John Foxe (who wrote the Famous Book of Martyrs) laughed at the shenanigans,
"Turning, returning, half turning and whole turning,
such kissing, blessing, crouching, becking, crossing,
knocking, ducking, washing, rinsing, lifting, touching,
fingering, whispering, stopping, dripping, bowing,
licking, wiping, shifting, with a hundred things more!"
Because they believed in the Priesthood of all believers (and not just some), they condemned Special Clothes for the minister. They called them "Romish rags". One man-a William Turner-even taught his dog to jump up and snatch the clerical hats off the priestly heads!
They also simplified their Church Buildings.
The cross-shaped building with screened off rooms for the priests and choirs were replaced by rectangular structures that allowed for optimum listening.
Images, paintings, and stained glass windows were gotten rid of-not because the Puritans hated art-but because they thought God and His story were better communicated through the Word of God.
Because the Lord's Supper is not a sacrifice, the stone altar was replaced with a wooden table. And, because the Church must be Word-centered, the Table was moved to the side and the pulpit was put front-and-center.
They also simplified Church Music. Because singing is the heritage of all God's People, choirs were dismissed and their challenging songs were replaced with Psalms set to tunes that were easy to sing and consistent with the Glory of God.
Finally, they simplified the Sacraments. The Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church were replaced by the two found in the Bible, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. And these, too, were simplified, in that the Puritans took the mystery (or, magic, maybe) out of them and told the people what they really were-signs of God's love and our salvation.
WHAT EFFECT DID THE SIMPLYING OF WORSHIP HAVE ON THE PURITAN CONGREGATIONS?
One last thing: What effect did the simplifying of worship have on the Puritans? It had the best effect of all: It allowed everyone to take part in the worship of God.
When the screens were taken down in front, everyone could draw near to God through Jesus Christ.
When the choirs were dismissed, everyone could sing God's praises in his own language.
When the reading and preaching of God's Word was made central to the service, everyone could know God's will for his life. William Weston was a Jesuit priest who hated the Puritans. What made him angry, made the Puritans glad,
"They held arguments, also among themselves, about
the meaning of various Scripture texts, all of them,
men, women, boys and girls, laborers, workmen,
Gothic buildings, mysterious ceremonies, Latin chants, priestly costumes, and the like leave the people awed, perhaps, but still far from God. But simplify the service and you not only honor God, but bring His people home to their Father.
That's the Puritan view of the Church and Public Worship. May God make it our own, for Christ's sake. Amen.
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