Rev. Kleyn is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.
The formal worship of God on the Lord’s Day is the central as well as a most blessed part of our lives as believers. We consciously enter the presence of our heavenly Father. We humble ourselves before Him. We praise and adore Him. And as we do so, we experience fellowship with Him. That fellowship is enjoyed by means of a holy conversation that takes place between God and His people. It is a two-way conversation—not only does God speak to us, but we are given the opportunity and privilege to speak to Him. God is pleased, in this way, to feed and nourish our souls. We therefore return to our homes and to our lives in this world confessing that “it is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto thy name, O most High” (Ps. 92:1).
There is always the danger, however, that our worship becomes routine and rather mechanical. We become so accustomed to the various elements of worship, that we do not think much about their importance and fail to worship God through each of them. Although we are in church and thus involved in worship, we simply go through the motions and do not worship God from the heart.
For this reason it is my purpose to consider in this and in future articles the various elements that make up our worship services. May this serve to remind us of the important place that each element occupies in worship. May it also remind us of how we are to worship God sincerely through every element of worship. And may we strive to do so, so that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts are pleasing to His ears and thus acceptable in His sight.
The worship service begins with the salutation, “Beloved congregation in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
A salutation is a word of greeting. That greeting at the beginning of worship is from God. As we enter God’s presence, He speaks to us, welcoming us into His presence and fellowship.
It is certainly appropriate that our worship services begin with this salutation from God. In worship, we who are creatures of the dust and sinners approach the almighty and holy God of heaven and earth. We must do so in accordance with the words of Ecclesiastes 5:1-2: “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.” In light of this admonition, it is proper that God speak first. Knowing what we are in relation to the Almighty One, we humbly enter His presence in order to hear Him speak. Our worship begins, therefore, not with man’s speech, but with the speech of God.
We must clearly understand that it is God, and not the minister, who says the words of the salutation. When we worship God, we fellowship with Him through speech. In that conversation, the minister stands between God and His people. At times He is the people’s voice to God, speaking to God on their behalf. At other times he is God’s voice to the people, speaking to the saints on God’s behalf. The latter is the case with the salutation. The minister says the words, but through him God Himself speaks to His people.
The salutation that is commonly used in our worship services is this: “Beloved congregation in the Lord Jesus Christ.” This salutation, or slight variations of it (such as “Beloved church of Christ”), is based upon the salutations we find in Scripture. The apostle Paul, in writing to the churches, usually began his letters with such a greeting. An example of this is found in Romans 1:7, where we read these words: “Beloved of God, called to be saints.”
God calls us His “Beloved.” He reminds us, at the very beginning of our worship service, that that is who we are. He as it were says to us, “I love you. You are dear and precious to Me. You are the objects of My eternal and unchanging love!”
We are that. But the reason we are is not because of anything in ourselves, nor because of anything we have done. The only reason we are the beloved of God is because we are such “in the Lord Jesus Christ.” We have been eternally chosen in Christ. We have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. We are sanctified by the Spirit of Christ. On account of Christ we are the beloved of God. Because of Christ and His work, God sees us as a holy people whom He loves and with whom He can and will have fellowship through worship.
The words of the salutation are beautiful and blessed words to hear when we enter the presence of God in worship. They are words we need to hear.
Sometimes we come to church and wonder, because of the trials we faced in the past week, if God indeed loves us. Perhaps our lives have been turned upside down through heavy burdens and afflictions. We have faced a difficult week of struggles. Our faith has grown dim. In weakness of faith, we doubt God’s love.
Other times we come to church and wonder concerning God’s love because of our sins. We know we have sinned again and again against Him. We have committed the same sins that we did in the past, even though we confessed them and resolved not to commit them again. We have been unfaithful. We know we have offended our God and Father in heaven. We hardly dare approach Him in worship.
But then God says to us, “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ!” We come into His presence and He, in spite of all our sins, speaks these reassuring words: “I love you!”
This assurance of God’s love enables us to worship Him. If we did not know that we were His beloved in Christ, we would not dare to enter His presence. We could not enter. We would have no right to enter. Without Christ, God could justly banish us from His house and cast us away from His sight. But knowing His love, and knowing of it as soon as we come before Him, we are assured that He gladly receives us into His presence to have fellowship with Him.
The fact that God speaks to us of His love at the very beginning of the service is also significant for the rest of the worship service. It means that we can receive everything that God says to us in worship as spoken to us in love.
That is especially important for the child of God with regard to the preaching. God speaks to us through the preaching. Sometimes His speech is gentle. He, as it were, speaks softly to His people. He tells us of His kindness and grace. He assures us of the forgiveness of our sins. He comforts us by stating that He is at our side in all the struggles of life. He tells us that He works all things for our eternal good. He says all this in love.
There are other times, however, when God speaks to us harshly in the preaching. He comes with sharp and strong words. He speaks words that are pointed with regard to our sins. What He says stings and hurts, for we see our sins and sense His great displeasure with us on account of them. However, having heard the salutation, we know that behind His stern rebukes and sharp words is His love for us. Whom the Lord loves, He chastens. If He rebukes us, it is done in love.
A question arises, however, in this connection. The question is, How can this salutation be spoken to the whole congregation? We know that they are not all Israel which are of Israel (Rom. 9:6). We know that it is very likely that there are those in the congregation who are not people of God, not His beloved. So how can the whole congregation be addressed as the beloved of God, when not everyone is that?
It is proper that the church be addressed this way because this is scriptural. God, through the apostle Paul, greets the whole church as “Beloved.” God does this because He views and addresses the church organically. Scripture teaches us that the church can be compared, for example, to a wheat field. In that field there are kernels of wheat. But there is also chaff, and there are also stalks and weeds. This does not alter the fact, however, that the farmer views the field as a wheat field. And that is exactly how God looks at His church. There is chaff in it. There are weeds in it. But God looks at what is at the heart of the church, and addresses it accordingly. And at the heart of the church are the elect. For their sake the church is addressed as the beloved of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus the salutation is not for everyone who hears it. It is only for the elect, those who are in truth the beloved of God. The reprobate element in the church are not His beloved, and they know it. The salutation is not for them. God speaks it to His elect. And through the Spirit in their hearts He makes them know they are His beloved.
The salutation is an important part of worship. We must, therefore, give careful attention to this greeting from God. We need to hear it. We need to receive it by faith. It is important that we begin our worship services by laying hold on these words of God and believing that we are what He tells us we are—His beloved. Then, in spite of all our sin and unworthiness, we are able to enter His presence with confidence in order to experience blessed fellowship with our covenant God.