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Alex's Blog for March 2, 2011 - A Missing Element in Modern Evangelical Worship: People Who Tremble at the Word of God
By Alex Dodson
The proclamation of the Word of God has taken a back seat in many evangelical churches today. The great pulpits of the past no longer exist. Even the large pulpit bibles that used to be on every pulpit don't have a place in modern evangelical church sanctuaries. The pulpit has been put aside to make room for the worship team. When the preacher comes to speak, he usually has a small lectern that is put there for him to lay his Bible or notes on and then removed quickly as soon as he is finished to make room for the worship leaders. The great preaching of the Word of previous generations is missing from most modern day evangelical churches. So, people who tremble at the Word of God are scarce today.
Another important thing missing from modern day evangelical churches is conviction of sin. Sin is hardly mentioned in some pulpits and when it is mentioned in others, it only gets little notice. People who are broken hearted over their sins are hard to find these days. We don't hear the mourning anymore. In the great revivals of the past, people used to mourn over their sins and cry for mercy. Not any more. Mourning is out of place in modern evangelical worship. Yet, these kinds of people, those who mourn over their sins and tremble at the Word of God, are the kinds of people God esteems. Isaiah 66:2b says, "This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word." Today, we need people who tremble at the Word of God. We don't need gigantic mega churches or elaborate sound and projection systems, or expert worship leaders and worship bands. We have all of these things in abundance. What we don't have are people who tremble at the Word of God and mourn over their sins. When we begin to see these kinds of people in our churches, then, we will know that revival has come. We will know that God has come down to visit us.
God despises an outward show. He is more concerned about our hearts. He is not that interested in our outward ways of worshipping Him. The things that we emphasize today are not important to God. God doesn't really care that much about great sanctuaries, lively music, lifting up of hands, outstanding acoustics, and so many other things we have in modern worship. If we have the best of all these outward things and yet our hearts are not right, then God will despise all of this as show. Keil and Delitzsch in commenting on Isaiah 66:2, write, "But that it is not sacrifices in themselves that are rejected, but the sacrifices of those whose hearts are divided between Jehovah and idols, and who refuse to offer to Him the sacrifice that is dearest to Him." (Commentary on Isaiah, p. 495)
Much of modern day evangelicalism could be likened to the church in Laodicea in Revelation. They thought they had all they needed but they were actually poor in the things God esteems. We have our elaborate worship structures and sound systems, our talented worship leaders and many praise songs. All of these things may be good in themselves but are they really what God is looking for. Is He not looking for something deeper?
God sees the inward attitude of our hearts. Isaiah 57:15 says, "For this is what the high and lofty One says - he who lives forever, whose name is holy: 'I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the
contrite." God is looking for the one who is humble and contrite in spirit and who trembles at His Word. He is looking for the one who knows and feels the sinfulness of his own heart and the one who mourns over his sin. We find that kind of man in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Tax Collector) in Luke 18:9-14 - "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself; 'God, I thank you that I am not like all other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.'" The Publican was convicted of his sinfulness. He knew he was a sinner, and he humbled himself before God. Today, conviction of sin is missing from modern day evangelicalism. Where are the truly contrite in heart? Where are those who mourn over their sins?
John Calvin writes, "…for, when he sys that God 'looketh to the humble,' I have no doubt that he who is 'humble and contrite in spirit' is indirectly contrasted by him with the array, and splendor, and elegance of ceremonies, by which the eyes of men are commonly dazzled, so as to be carried away in admiration. On the other hand the Lord testifies that he demands humble and downcast minds, and that tremble at his commandments. By these words he describes inward purity of heart and sincere desire of godliness, and at the same time shows in what way we ought to be prepared to please God." (Calvin's Commentary on Isaiah,www.ccel.org ) Being humble and contrite in heart are the marks of a true Christian. When these elements are missing in our churches, we can know that the state of true Christianity is very low. God could care less about our magnificent buildings of worship and our elaborate sound and projection systems. All of that is not important to Him. God looks on our hearts. He esteems the one who mourns and is broken hearted over his own sinfulness and who trembles at His Word. Where those kind of people are is the place God esteems. If those kind of people are there, the lowliest place of worship shines in the eyes of God.
Matthew Henry writes, "He has a heaven and earth of his own making, and a temple of man's making; but he overlooks them all, that he may look with favor to him that is poor in spirit, humble and serious, self-abasing and self-denying, whose heart is truly contrite for sin, penitent for it, and in pain to get it pardoned, and who trembles at God's word…Such a heart is a living temple for God; he dwells there, and it is the place of his rest; it is like heaven and earth, his throne and his footstool." (Matthew Henry's Commentary on Isaiah, p. 389) God overlooks all our manmade temples and looks for the man who is humble and contrite in heart and who trembles at His Word. Modern day evangelicalism needs to learn that. God is not interested in our great programs and buildings. He is interested in our hearts.
God looks for those who tremble at His Word. God delights in the one who desires to hear and know His Word, who loves the Word of God, and who hungers and thirsts for His Word. John Calvin writes, "We ought carefully to mark the expression which he employs, 'trembling at the word of God.' Many boast that they reverence and fear God; but, by disregarding his word, they at the same time show that they are despisers of God. All the reverence that we owe to God must be paid to his word, in which he wishes to be fully recognized as in a lively image. The amount of what is said is, that God prefers this sacrifice to all others, when believers, by true self-denial, lie low in such abasement as to have no lofty opinion about themselves, but to permit themselves to be reduced to nothing. Thus also the Psalmist says, 'The sacrifice acceptable to God is a contrite spirit; an afflicted heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.' (Psalm 51:7) Because this modesty of faith produces obedience, this pious feeling is likewise added, that, laying aside all obstinancy, they tremble at the word of God." (Calvin's Commentary on Isaiah, www.ccel.org ) Where are the tremblers at God's Word today? Where are those who hunger for the Word of God and attend upon it as if it were coming from the very mouth of God? Where are the great pulpits of the land and the thundering forth of the Word of God from those pulpits?
God looks for the one who lives by His Word. He esteems the one who delights in His Word. Psalm 1:2 says, "But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night." John Calvin writes, "'And trembleth at my word.' So far as relates to 'trembling,' it might be thought strange at first sight that he demands it in believers, since nothing is more sweet or gentle than the word of the Lord, and nothing is more opposite to it than to excite terror. I reply, there are two kinds of trembling; one by which they are terrified who hate and flee from God, and another which afflicts the heart, and promotes the obedience, of those who reverence and fear God. This clause, I am aware, is viewed by others as relating to the Law, which threatens and terrifies, and proclaims the dreadful judgment of God. But I take it in a more general acceptation; for even believers tremble at the promises when they embrace them with reverence. Hence infer that true godliness consists in having our senses brought into a state of obedience to God, and in making no boastful or wicked claims for ourselves. The nature of faith is to yield obedience to God, and to listen to him attentively and patiently when he speaks." (Calvin's Commentary on Isaiah, www.ccel.org ) The one who trembles at God's Word embraces that Word with reverence and lives by that Word in all of life.
True revival restores a love for God's Word. We are living in a time when the influence of God's Word is declining. We are living in a culture that has forgotten the Word of God. People are doing what is right in their own eyes. They could care less what God's Word says. This is what our culture reflects today. We have only to look at Hollywood to see the kind of movies they produce today and compare them with an earlier generation. There was a time when nudity, sexual immorality, curse words, irreverence, and crudity were not allowed in movies. Today, that has all changed. Mainstream Hollywood now includes all of these things and refuses to give them up and the people of our culture pay money week after week to view these productions. Yet, an earlier generation living in the midst of an earlier culture that was still influenced by God's moral law thought these things were wrong.
Iain Murray in his book Pentecost - Today? writes, "The twentieth century has seen a more widespread and enduring defection from historic Christianity in the English-speaking world than has been witnessed in any period since the Reformation. This defection has occurred through the removal of the foundation to all Christian teaching, namely that the words of Scripture are so given of God that the teaching they contain is entirely trustworthy and authoritative. The Bible stands supreme above all human wisdom and religious tradition. It alone is the Book which God has given for the salvation of men. If therefore, Scripture loses its true place in the church nothing remains certain." (p. 171) When the pulpit is taken out and a small lectern takes its place on a stage built for worship teams, this tells us something about the importance of the preaching of the Word of God. The powerful preaching of the Word of God has largely disappeared from modern day evangelical churches. There are exceptions of course but in the main this statement is true. The powerful preaching of the Word of God has been largely replaced by power point presentations or friendly talks by the pastor on Sunday morning. Where are the John Knoxes and Martin Luthers of the past who thundered forth the Word of God from their pulpits?
When true revival comes, the Word of God is preached with power. The hearts of the people yearn for the Word of God. Jon D. Payne in his book In the Splendor of Holiness writes, "…I have discovered time and again through the study of Scripture that it is through the primary means of Word-centered proclamation that God advances His redemptive purpose in the course of history. This is precisely why the preaching of God's Word has historically held a central place in Protestant worship." (p. 83) Paul stated the same thing when he wrote, "For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe." (1 Corinthians 1:21) Today, powerful preaching is hard to find in modern day evangelical pulpits. When true revival comes, we will see such preaching come back.
Payne writes, "During the Protestant Reformation, the reading and preaching of Scripture in public worship was understood by many to be the voice of God speaking to His people. One of the most profound and elevated statements on preaching comes from the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566: 'The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good. (I, iii).'" (Payne, p. 87-88) Though no such respect for the preached Word seems to exist today, yet when revival comes, such respect will return.
Great periods of preaching have happened in the past. One such period was the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century. In writing about the preachers of that Revival, J. Fordyce said, "These preachers did not care much to argue about the existence of God, the probabilities connected with a future life, or the reasonableness of Christianity. To them Christ was a real Being, and His Gospel a real salvation; to them this salvation was not a future prospect, but a present and conscious possession; to them the Bible did not merely contain things of high value - it was the word of the living God, the full and final word on all matters connected with man's highest life here and hereafter. Believing all this with intensity of faith, they spoke out of full hearts, and their word was with power; their gospel became the 'power of God unto salvation' to many thousands….Thus without any reasoning, with but little argument, the Deistic position was completely undermined, and the walls of the proud Jericho of eighteenth-century unbelief fell flat before the blasts of the new evangel." (Murray, p. 174-175)
When revival comes, this kind of powerful preaching will return. Let us pray that God will restore the powerful preaching of the Word of God in our day. Let us pray that these great preachers of the past will return to our midst, not that they will be resurrected but that their spirit will come back in other men called by God to proclaim His Word with great power. Lastly, let us pray that those who tremble at the Word of God will grow to great numbers in our land.
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless indicated otherwise