In our discussion of the elements in the order of worship in the last article of the Standard Bearer, we talked about the reading of Scripture and its place in the worship service. In this article we propose to discuss the reading of the law and the reading of the Apostolic Confession.
There are, in general, a few remarks concerning the reading of the law which we ought to discuss first of all.
In the first place, this practice of reading the law in the worship service dates back to Calvin and the liturgy which he developed while in Strassburg. It has, generally, formed a part of the worship service in the Reformed Churches since that time, although it was sometimes done in different ways. For example, in some of the Dutch Churches, the law was sung instead of read, and even Article 69 of the Church Order refers to this practice where it says, “In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the sermon shall be sung.” (In a small-size edition of thePsalter, an edition published by the Netherlands Reformed Churches, an English translation of this song of the Ten Commandments is included.)
In the second place, this part of the service, and other parts of the “preliminaries,” was not usually performed by the minister in the Dutch Reformed Churches, but was done by a voorlezer, who was usually one of the elders. In this country, historically, the minister has read the law, and our churches have never, so far as I know, made use of a voorlezer.
This particular element in the liturgy of the worship service does not have direct Scriptural sanction. The inclusion (or exclusion) of the reading of the law, therefore, is not absolutely required, and the determination concerning whether or not it should be included lies in the area of Christian liberty. The decision to include it must be decided on other grounds than direct Scriptural injunction.
What purpose does the reading of the law serve? The answer to this question will determine both whether it should be included, and, if it is included, what place it should occupy in the order of worship.
Our fathers have maintained that the purpose of reading the law is threefold: 1) It is read to remind us of God’s absolute sovereignty over our lives; 2) It is read to serve as a mirror for our misery—according to the teaching of our Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day II: “Whence knowest thou thy misery? Out of the law of God . . . ;” 3) It is read to remind us of the truth that the law is the rule of gratitude for God’s people who have been delivered from sin through the blood of Christ—according to the teaching of our Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Days XXXII-LXIV, where the detailed discussion of the law of God and its significance for our lives is placed under the general subject of “gratitude.”
This purpose of reading the law must be clearly understood. The reading of the law is not intended to impress upon the people of God that their salvation comes through the keeping of the law. There is always the danger of this in the church of Christ. There is always the abiding threat of “legalism” which tries to fence in God’s people with countless “do’s” and “don’ts” rooted in the law. If ever the purpose of the reading of the law becomes a kind of instruction in the “ladder of salvation” which we climb in order to attain heaven, the reading of the law stands in flat contradiction to the rest of the service in which Christ crucified is proclaimed as the One Who alone is God’s gracious Gift to bring us salvation. He has fulfilled the law for us, and by the power of His Spirit, He fulfills the law in us. The law has its place in the worship service as part of instruction in salvation by grace through Jesus Christ. Never must this purpose be obscured.
Because the law has this threefold purpose which we mentioned above, it is somewhat difficult to assign it its proper place in the order of worship. Let us try -to make this a bit clearer.
There is no question about it that one purpose which the reading of the law occupies is to remind us of God’s sovereignty over our lives. And it is well that we be reminded of this as we enter God’s house. God is the sovereign Lord of the universe and He has the absolute right to dictate to the creatures which He has formed how they shall live in the world. We are creatures whose every breath is given us as a gift every moment of our existence. We are utterly and totally dependent upon Him, and without Him we cannot so much as move. When we come into His presence, as we do when we enter church, it is important that this truth be brought home to us.
Yet this cannot be the whole story. The reading of the law cannot and ought not to serve the purpose of a reminder of bare sovereignty. God’s absolute sovereignty over us is a sovereignty which is particularly exercised in our salvation, and the reminder of His sovereignty ought to stand connected with this salvation which He has given to us. Hence it ought to stand connected with the spiritual purposes of the law: the mirror of our misery and the rule of our gratitude.
In other words, this reminder, through the law, of God’s sovereignty stands subordinate to the spiritual purpose which the law serves as it is a part of the gospel of our salvation.
That the law serves as a mirror of our misery is the clear teaching of Scripture. We need remind ourselves of only one passage, James 1:23-25: “For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.”
The point here is that the law of God expresses .fully the perfect will of God for us. When that law is read so that we hear it in our hearts, the result is that we compare our lives with that holy standard. The law functions as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected from a spiritual point of view. When we are reminded of the high demands of the law—its requirement of perfect love with heart and mind and soul and strength, and see ourselves in comparison with it, the result is that we see our sins not only, but our sinful nature which is always prone to hate God and our neighbor. But it must be remembered that this is possible for a child of God only, in whom dwells the Spirit of Christ. The mirror functions only for those who are already regenerated and in whom dwells Christ’s Spirit; it cannot function in this way for the wicked. When we see this terrible depravity of our nature, the result of it is that we flee to the cross to find salvation only in Jesus Christ our Savior.
Thus, if the law has as its primary purpose to serve as a mirror of misery, the proper place for it is near the beginning of the service. You will recall that when we made some comments earlier about the general order of worship as it had been practiced in the past, we noticed that several Reformed liturgists provided room in the liturgy for confession of sin and absolution. We remarked at that time that this practice was no longer common among us, as important as it is. If indeed, the law serves as a mirror of misery, then the law itself can very well serve as the means to bring us to confession of sin and to seek our salvation in Christ. The reading of the law in this sense can then very well take the place of confession of sin and absolution—especially in connection with a well-chosen Psalm which speaks particularly of the forgiveness of sins.
However, if the law has as its primary purpose, the rule of gratitude, then its place in the beginning of the worship service is not by any means the best. When the law serves as a rule for gratitude, it serves to remind us of the truth that because we are saved only by grace through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we, as a redeemed people, are now called to express our gratitude to God for the great deliverance He has given. Thankful children of our heavenly Father are obedient children, and obedience is expressed in walking in the way of our Father’s will—as expressed in His law.
When this purpose stands on the foreground, it would be much more appropriate for the law to be read near the end of the service, perhaps after the sermon and just before the final song. In the gospel we have been shown how our God through Christ has delivered us from sin; now the law is read to show us how we are to express our gratitude before God for such great deliverance—also in the week ahead.
It might be well to consider, therefore, changing the place of the law in our order of worship, sometimes reading it in its customary place and sometimes reading it at the end of the service, with the minister making clear in each case what is the main emphasis in this particular service. Of course, it ought to be understood that, if the law is read at the end of the service as the “rule of our gratitude” then there ought to be some other provision made at the beginning of the service for “confession of sin” and “absolution.” These things are, in my judgment, worth pondering a bit.
At any rate, the reading of the law does have an important place in our worship, and its practice ought to be continued. But, of course, as is true with every other element in the worship service, this part too has its benefit only when the people of God, hearing the law, pay close attention, listen as to the Word of their God to them—their God Who has delivered them from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage—and receive that law of God into their hearts, whether that be as a mirror of their misery to lead them to Christ or as a rule for their gratitude. True worship always depends for its effectiveness upon the inner spiritual state of the worshipper.
We will discuss the reading of the Apostles’ Creed next time, the Lord willing.