A Cistern for the Water

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My friend Toby Sumpter, no enemy of robust liturgy, recently posted the following on Facebook. “When people come to our church ‘for the liturgy’ I think I will begin asking how frequently they use porn, yell at their wife, or tell lies.” On a related note, Mark Galli, author of Beyond Smells and Bells, noted that “it should not surprise us that the litugry is also one of the best places to hide from God” (p. 11). (I will interact more with Galli’s book in another venue.)

When liturgists debate, there is a lot to talk about, and many fields of study to cover — theology, history, aesthetics, and so on. I have certain decided convictions in all such debates, and am happy to participate in them. But there is one thing needful as a prerequisite to everything else, and this one thing is necessary to keep all the subsequent debate from being entirely beside the point.

If a man must be born again before he can see the kingdom of God, he must certainly be born again before he can see the realities of that kingdom in the liturgy. If you can’t see the point, then you are  not going to be able to see the point anywhere.

If the assembled people know and love God, then He receives their worship. If they do not, then He does not. If the assembled worshippers are spiritually dead, then all their liturgical accoutrements are just ornate carvings on the gravestones.

We should know that God is the great maker of icons. As the Creator of a world full of His image-bearers, He has made billions of them. If we know God, then we discern His body, we locate His image, and we will do so where He put it. If we do not know God, then we will eventually find ourselves bowing down to pictures or statues that one of us made. Wisdom is as wisdom does, and people who pray to pictures don’t have a liturgical clue.

And this is why it is necessary for us to confess that God is also the greatest iconoclast. As the Judge who governs a sinful world, He is the preeminent caster down of idols and images, especially those images or places or sacrifices or liturgies which He Himself commanded to be made in the first place. No one desecrates a holy place like YHWH. No one desecrates His holy places like YHWH. No one flings holy relics away in disgust like He does.

YHWH makes our ears to tingle (1 Sam. 3:11; 2 Kings 2:12; Jer. 19:3). He did it at Shiloh. He did it to Solomon’s temple. He did it to Nehushtan. He did it to Herod’s temple. And the holy prophets of old used the kind of language in declaring the righteousness of such judgments that makes Cromwell’s men look like dithering liberals.

The principle of new life must therefore be active and present before we can be entrusted with any element of public worship, whether high, low, or middle. The Spirit creates the church, not the other way around, and when that Spirit-created living water is there, we must find a cistern for it. But finding a cistern is not the same thing as finding the water. The history of the church is littered with people who have made this damning mistake. Woe to those who have committed two evils.

“For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13)

So we must see Christ, and we must see Him with evangelical eyes. We must do this before forming any dogmatic convictions about liturgy whatever. Before taking on the role of a liturgist, whether amateur or professional, we must pass our prelims. Our board consists of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Simeon, and a couple of hot-gospelers from the Kentucky frontier. Their appointed task is not to fence the font, or the Table, but rather our right to make contributions to liturgical discussions.




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