Friday, March 13, 2015

Music Review: "Let Love Reign" by Karyn Morgan (Christian Folk, Bluegrass)

Karyn Morgan and I have been friends for years, and I am glad to recommend her new album to you entitled, Let Love Reign. (Get it here). Karyn is a talented guitarist and vocalist with a unique style and unequivocal vibe.

Let Love Reign contains twelve tracks including her best known single, Martha's Mistake. Throughout the album you will find tracks that could easily be heard in a Starbucks or a local coffee shop, featuring creative lyrics and delightful and engaging melodies.

In terms of genre, this album traverses several, but is probably rooted most closely to Christian folk. Some songs like So You Know feel contemporary; Holy Amen is clearly bluegrass; Let Love Reign is definitely more of a Gospel song, and according to Karyn herself, several would probably fall more into the range of "worship meditations," (Closer to You, Only in You, and Here I Am).

So what is the point of the album? Where does it point us? What is it trying to say? Clearly Karyn is telling you the story of her faith and love for the Lord Jesus Christ. In Martha's Mistake, for instance, she tells the Biblical story of sisters Mary and Martha (recounted in Luke 10:38-42),

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
As Karyn tells the story lyrically she speaks from the experience of a woman who has made the same mistake as Martha at times, pursuing the "stuff" of life without pursuing the Savior Himself. Now on the other side of Martha's error, Karyn bids the listener to come and to settle the heart down and rest awhile at the side of Jesus. In so doing, Karyn is inviting the listener to come to the same Christ whom she has found to be infinitely loving, caring, merciful, and kind.

As I write, I am listening to Only in You, one of the worship meditations. I could easily hear this song being used in a worship setting in the local church to powerful affect.

In fact, as I listen to this "call to worship," part of me wishes I was still back at the Hudson Presbyterian Church worshiping together where Karyn would regularly lead worship with this very kind of song, sitting alone on the platform with her six-string.

It's amazing how some of these songs could be used to great affect in multiple settings: the modern stage, the coffee shop, or the plain style Puritan meeting house. Personally, I like this album best playing on my computer as I work in my office. It is settling. Comforting. Engaging. Meaningful.

The other night, did a social experiment. I played Karyn's CD while our people were informally gathering for worship on a Wednesday Night. I like to select music for the gathering time that doesn't seem drab or austere. It has be rightfully worshipful, and yet peppy enough to help enchant our fellowship gathering with gladness before we begin.

I noticed that Karyn's music did just the thing. It set a warm worshipful vibe in the church before we began our worship time together. I didn't ask anyone their opinion, but I've noticed how the right selection of music before worship "sets the tone" for the mood of the gathering. Based on the response of the people, the delight in their faces, and their readiness to worship, "Let Love Reign" was the perfect mood setter.

Down here in the South, the bluegrass tunes worked especially well too.

--Matthew Everhard

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Creed or Chaos: Why Presbyterians and Reformed Christians Use Confessions of Faith

If you ask a Presbyterian what he or she believes, there may be a number of good answers. We might reply, “We believe in Christ alone.” Or we might say, “We believe that we are justified through faith, not by works.” Perhaps we might even use the Reformation catch-words of sola scriptura; “We believe that Scripture alone is the sole authority for doctrine, life, and practice.” Indeed we do! Those would all be excellent replies.

One possible monkey wrench in the latter response is that a number of cults could ALSO say that THEY believe in the authority of the Bible as well. The Jehovah’s Witness come to mind. Surely we do NOT believe in the same content as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

For this reason, Reformed believers have tended to be confessional believers. That is, we adhere to what we call the “subordinate standards” of the historic creeds[1] and confessions. Those two words are both important: when we say “subordinate” we mean that our confessions are less authoritative than Scripture. Scripture stands over them as their master. The Bible is the Word of God; the confessions are the words of men. Yet they are also our “standards,” as Reformed people because they delineate clearly between what is orthodoxy and what is heresy.

Think for instance of the purpose of a good fence. The fence is not of itself intrinsically valuable. What it does is mark the boundaries of the field; if it does that well, it is a good fence! The field itself is where the true harvest lies, but the fence exists to keep the thieves out and to keep the fruit of the harvest safe. Or think for example of the walls of a castle. The walls of the castle are designed to keep invaders out and the residents of the royal family safe. In the same way, the historic confessions of the Reformed faith (such as the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Confession, the Canons of Dort etc.) are excellent summaries of pure doctrine. They are no substitute for the Bible, but they draw the firm line between what the Scriptures affirm and the dangerous and unmarked lands of heresy.  

Confessions are essentially concise summations of the Church’s doctrine, and they have a long and storied history. They are statements of our shared faith. For as long as Christian believers have gathered to worship, they have taught doctrine (propositional truth claims) in order to pass on the true faith from generation to generation (Jude 3). In fact, the New Testament itself records some proto-creeds that were in use in worship even before the close of the biblical canon. Examples of this type of creed include Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, and 2 Timothy 2:11-13. Many biblical scholars believe that these early creeds were memorized in the form of hymns aiding memorization in a pre-literate society. Within the first few centuries after the completion of the New Testament canon, the early church continued to encode its vibrant faith with early formulations of Christian teaching, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and others.

In fairness, there are some branches of the Christian family tree that reject the notion of keeping creeds and confessions. However the vast majority of believers holding to the historic Christian faith have found great spiritual power in honoring the teachings of past generations. In fact, one strength of confessional Christianity is the abiding connection that is forged between previous generations and contemporary believers. Clearly, the universal Church of Jesus Christ connects believers not only to others around the world, but also to our forefathers in the faith who have gone before us in generations past. Creeds and confessions help modern believers to remain humble while avoiding what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” that is, the belief that one’s own generation is somehow superior to all those who have gone before it.

Furthermore, confessions and creeds serve to help assure us that the doctrinal faith that we articulate today has not subtly changed over time by being subject to the warping influence of secular society. Creeds stand as ancient landmarks denoting the “boundaries” of believers’ hearts in history. Noting where one deviates from an ancient creed gives a person a clearer understanding of where his or her own theological convictions stand in relation to other believers throughout history. Perhaps this also helps us to discover what direction we are moving. Are we moving closer to Christ? To God’s Word? To the heart of God Himself? Or are we moving further away?

The “subordinate standards” that our church subscribes to is the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the standard-bearing confessions in the Presbyterian branch of Christianity. Influenced heavily by the thinking of Reformation theologian John Calvin (1509-1564), the Westminster Confession (1647) is a confessional exemplar of Reformed theology.[2] The Westminster Confession of Faith is the premiere example of theological intellectualism absorbed in the beauty of the sovereignty of God. The Westminster Confession, and Calvin before it for that matter, were both completely committed to the theological framework that God is sovereign over the entire universe. Therefore, as you study this Confession you will undoubtedly encounter the Living God as ruler of the cosmos, the world, the events of your life, and hopefully your heart.

Historical Context
While the historical context of the writing of theWestminster Confession has been written about at length in other places and can not be repeated here, a few words about its composition are appropriate. “Composed by an Assembly of Divines convened at Westminster Abbey by the Long Parliament (1643-1648), the Confession was designed to unite the English and Scottish churches in their theology.”[3] In the first half of the 17th century, England was in turmoil. Nearly torn apart politically, many believers in Britain looked to the Scriptures and to their Puritan theologians to help articulate hope for their lives. Many hoped that England, Scotland, and Ireland could all be brought together under one confessional standard. More than anything, believers needed their spiritual leaders to help them understand the whole of Scripture in the midst of a rapidly changing and often chaotic political climate.

Fortunately, these theologians and pastors sought to articulate the strong sovereignty of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Commissioned by the English House of Commons in 1643, work began on a new confession. Originally, it was thought that a mere revision of the Church of England’s Thirty Nine Articles was all that was necessary. It soon became apparent that more work needed to be done. They did not entirely reinvent the wheel; the crafters of this document had been inspired by prior works including the Irish Articles of 1615, principally drafted by James Usher, as well as the Genevan Catechism of John Calvin himself. Their final product was nothing less than breath-taking.

After 1,163 sessions meeting in Westminster Abbey, the so-called “Westminster Divines” (comprised of 151 believers including theologians, parliament members, and Scottish advisors)[4] completed a document that would stand as perhaps the most excellent summation of Reformation-inspired doctrine to date. The Confession was approved by the English Parliament and then also approved by the Scottish General Assembly in 1647.  While Calvinism itself waxed and waned throughout England’s history, the final product of the Westminster Assembly lives on in many denominations today.

The Westminster Confession also includes two “catechisms” (from the Greek word meaning instruction) that were designed to help believers learn to articulate their faith. These two surveys of biblical teaching take the form of question-and-answer sessions, as could be given from a mentor to a student. The Larger Catechism is designed to give thorough definitions of such great theological concepts as sanctification, effectual calling, and sin. Its precision has been of tremendous help to preachers, teachers, and theologians throughout the centuries. The Shorter Catechism is briefer and is suitable for use in Christian instruction for new converts, youth, and even children.

In America, the Adopting Act of 1729, “an action of the Synod of Philadelphia whereby the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms were adopted as the doctrinal position of the Presbyterian Church in colonial America,”[5] made the Confession a primary theological tool by which candidates for ministry were examined in the colonies of the New World. This act ensured that all ordained pastors and licensed preachers received the Confession “as being, in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine; and… as the confession of our faith.”[6] Interestingly, the Westminster Confession of Faith was studiously learned by rote, as it was often included in copies of the New England Primer, the booklet by which most school children learned to read.

Today, the Westminster Confession of Faith lives on as the primary confessional standard of Reformed denominations such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the EPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (the PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (the OPC), and several other denominations around the world. 

If you have never done so before, perhaps it would be a good time for you to begin a study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. You will find that, although it can never be a replacement for Bible reading, it greatly enhances your walk with Christ.

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville Florida. He is also the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647. 

[1] The Apostles’ Creed, for instance is recited often in our gathered worship. The Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed have also both enjoyed prominent places in Reformed Churches.

[3]Westminster Confession of Faith” in The Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America. Ed. by D.G Hart and Mark A. Noll. (Phillipsburg NJ: P & R Publishing, 1999) p. 276.
[4] This group was comprised of 121 ministers (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Independents, and Erastians), 20 commoners or tradesmen, and 10 landowners.
[5] “Adopting Act (1729)” in The Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America. Ed. by D.G Hart and Mark A. Noll. (Phillipsburg NJ: P & R Publishing, 1999) p. 13.
[6] Ibid. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

You Are a Significant Part of God's Plan

“Moreover, Josiah put away the mediums and the necromancers and the household gods and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law that were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord.” – 2 Kings 23:24

During my reading through the scriptures I recently came across the story of Josiah and his reign over Judah in 2 Kings. I was stricken by the reformations that took place under this young king who had taken over as ruler at the age of eight. In his thirty-one year reign he repaired the temple, restored the Passover, and recovered the law of God and it’s application among his people. What makes this so impressive is not just his youthfulness but also the fact that he had been preceded by generations of evil kings and Judah was deeply steeped in idolatry and the pagan religions of the surrounding nations. He was an isolated case of faithfulness in a long line of wicked and idolatrous kings. Furthermore, prior to his reign God had already decreed the judgment of Judah for this wickedness and reaffirmed his intentions during the reign of Josiah. Josiah’s reformations were a great blessing to his generation but did not avert the judgment of God for the sins previously committed. Shortly after Josiah’s death, Judah returned to idolatry under the reign of Jehoiakim and taken into Babylonian captivity under Nebuchadnezzar. God had decreed judgment prior to Josiah’s righteous reign and carried it out after his death.
To think that the effects of Josiah’s reforms were short lived would be a mistake. What is not evident in your reading of the story in 2 Kings becomes very clear when you get to the book of Daniel. What is barely mentioned in 2 Kings is elaborated on in Daniel. What you learn by considering these two books in their chronological relationship is that during the reforms of Josiah, Jewish families returned to the law and reestablished the practices that would raise a generation of young people who would be faithful to God. Among those young people were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Also known as Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. This explains how Judah could be so steeped in idolatry for generations, while still producing such godly young men. Josiah’s reign appears as an isolated caveat in Judah’s history. However, God was providentially preparing a remnant of faithful people in order to preserve his promises through the captivity that he ordained would come. God is faithful to his promises.

When you feel the apparent irrelevance of your own obedience in the grand scheme of things, remember that it is God and not men, in their limited scope, who makes all things work together for our good. Our lives are one small piece of a magnificent puzzle that our great creator is putting together. The puzzle must have that small piece to be a finished work.