In his Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel (contained in vol. 7 of the Banner Works), John Owen (1616-1683) spends a chapter briefly discussing the “apostasy from evangelical worship.” Owen is quite broad in this chapter, seeking, as he says, to discuss “only . . . such things as the generality of Christians, at least of Protestants, cannot but acknowledge” (217).
In other words, Owen assumes that Jesus Christ himself abolished the Old Testament manner of worship and instituted his own “solemn worship of God” in its place, and “herein alone consisteth that public revenue of glory which God requires of believers in this world.” All of the duties of believers can be accomplished individually by men, but the main responsibility of churches, Owen argues, is “to take care of the due celebration of that worship which the Lord Christ hath appointed.” (217-8)
Again, Owen takes for granted that Hebrews 7 teaches that Christ abolished the worship of the Old Testament, and he finds it untenable that Christ did not put something in its place or left the church, in this matter of utmost importance (public worship), “unto the inventions and imaginations of men.” Indeed, anyone who takes seriously and practices the public worship Jesus has prescribed cannot find it lacking in any respect. And so the great “apostasy” in evangelical worship is in either neglecting what Christ has appointed for worship or in “adding appointments of our own thereunto, inconsistent with and destructive of that which he hath ordained.” (218-9)
Most people, Owen says, neglect the worship Christ has ordained because they do not believe the gospel. They have no interest in the sanctifying and justifying death of Christ to which gospel worship points. Others lack spiritual light sufficient to believe in Christ through the worship he has given his church. Even though gospel worship is wholly spiritual, the institutions Christ has appointed are to a certain degree “outward and sensible” and so some men do not penetrate the outward rubrics of gospel worship through faith to take hold of Christ himself. They “proceed no farther in the worship of God by them than the actions and words that are used will carry them.” Before true worship can happen then, it is essential:
- that men submit to Christ’s authority in the institutions of public worship (prayer, Scripture reading, preaching, singing, the Lord’s Table, etc),
- that they trust Christ’s promise that he works through these instituted activities of worship, and
- that they understand how the elements of public worship have (in Owen’s words) a “mystical relation” to Christ himself (219-21).1
Owen also clarifies the other way men apostatize from evangelical worship, viz. their adding superstitious worship to what Christ has appointed. Owen, of course, has the Roman Catholic Church in his cross-hairs here. He doesn’t want to recount the entire history, but simply observes,
… as men grew carnal, having lost the spirit, life, and power of the gospel, and so far as they did so, they found it necessary to introduce a carnal, visible, pompous worship, suited unto that inward principle and light whereby they were acted (221).
And this returns us to the point I made (via Kevin DeYoung) last week. Merely changing the music does not solve the problem of spiritual vitality. It is to introduce literally a carnal means of evoking spiritual grace. It is far better for us to attend to the worship God has appointed through faith. The style of music is not the real problem.
- My post last week pointed to the fact that the public worship of Christ in church is an essential way that God works in true Christians for spiritual growth through faith. So in some way these elements do in fact point to and exalt Christ, and this is, I believe (though only a layman’s opinion), some of what Owen means by these elements having the “mystical relation” to Christ himself. Here’s Owen’s full statement: “That we understand in some measure the mystical relation that is between the outward symbols of the ordinance and the Lord Christ himself, with his grace represented thereby, wherein the nature, use and end of the institutions are contained.” (219-20) [↩]