The Ornamentation of the Preached Word

The letters to the churches in Revelation feature the refrain “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:22). This is no accident.

The apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, explains “ the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2Ti 4:17).

The same Paul asks “how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom 10:14)

The congregation called by the voice of God gathers in expectancy, waiting for the sight of Christ to be revealed to them as they hear the shout of the archangel and the blast of a trumpet (1 Thess 4:15-17) on the Last Day.

Until that day, the Christian church is defined by the way in which it is to receive the Word: audibly through the preaching of the Word (Rom 10) and visibly/tangibly in the administration of the sacraments.

The ornamentation of the preached Word rests on the communion table that sits in the front of the House of God.

The visual enhancement of the preached Word is contained in the cup and the bread in this period of waiting for the return of Christ (Acts 1:11).

The adornment of the preached Word is the fruit it bears in the hearts and lives of believers in all stages of Christian maturity.


Photo by John Mark Arnold on Unsplash

Book Recommendation: Sacred Bond


Over at the Modern Reformation website, you can read an interview of the authors of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored. (interview here)

I've included an excerpt from the interview in order to whet your appetite for this excellent book that we'd highly recommend to you! I (Pastor Norm) have used it as a teaching resource for a course on covenant theology and it was great to see the reception it received among lay-readers! You can buy a copy through Reformed Fellowship

MR: How will this book impact the way lay Christians read the Bible devotionally?

MB: Our prayer is that reading Sacred Bond will help you know how to read and interpret the Bible more faithfully. Studying God’s covenants has one primary goal: to know God and our relationship with him more fully. Studying the covenants should never be a dry academic exercise. It has immense pastoral and practical value for the Christian. It revolutionizes our approach to Scripture, providing us with helpful categories to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It shows us that the Bible is actually one book with one story, told on the stage of real human history. It highlights the plotline and central point of Scripture, setting every story in the context of the larger story about Christ. More importantly, it comforts us as we learn that God accepts us not on the basis of our covenant faithfulness but on the basis of Christ’s. It sweetens our fellowship with the Father as we come to know his oath and promises to us, promises that are “yes” and “amen” through the Mediator of the new covenant. It changes our view of the local church as we discover that we are part of God’s covenant community and worship him in a covenant-renewal ceremony every Lord’s Day. It transforms the way we see our children—namely, as the baptized members of God’s covenant of grace. It helps us understand that covenant is not a means to an end, but it is the end itself—the communion between God and his people.

Is Every Day of Your Life Filled With Screens?

As a thought experiment, think about the last five screens with images on them that you saw: what type of content was being communicated to you?

Business, advertising and entertainment are the realm of the screened image.

Scholars studying the field of online education are skeptical about screen-based education because of the association with aesthetic pleasure it creates in the mind of its audience.

One recent study observed, “because visual media are normally used in our culture to provide aesthetic pleasure, in the form of entertainment, the use of visual media in education tends to break down the distinction between education and entertainment.” (a)

The link between a medium and the messages it normally communicates must not be understated. (b) Presentation technologies are primarily employed in the business world and the world of entertainment. After all, business and entertainment are the two areas where screens are used most commonly; advertising, movies, sales pitches, and video games all feature projected images. The connotations these tools carry are varied for different people but there is certainly a common thread between the use of these technologies and the expectations that it creates in culture at large.

My point in this account is simple but I think it is profound: the waves of advertising and entertainment encountered in daily life are increasingly communicated via presentation technologies. (c) As a result, the decision to modify the practice of the church in corporate worship to include these presentation technologies is risking a lot for the marginal returns that come from it. (d)

What is the risk? Consider this analogy: if six days of the week are spent driving on the right side of the road, what would be the effect of switching to the left side of the road for one to two hours each Sunday? Using screens to take in advertising and entertainment throughout the week predisposes congregants to react with certain instinctive responses when screens are pressed into service as platforms for holy meditation and participation in worship. The visual 'seen' is always competing for attention with the 'heard'. A tool that carries the same DNA as the presentation technologies of the broader culture which have contributed to the decline of 'hearing' should be treated with utmost caution and ultimately avoided if possible. (e)


(a) Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap, “Hegemonic Visualism,” Radical Pedagogy (2005)
(b) Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage (New York: Bantam Books, 1967)
(c) I am not saying that I am opposed to presentation technologies outside of the context of corporate worship. As I continue to learn more about the effects of these technologies on the brain and the psyche I think it is wise for individuals to reflect on their own consumption habits.  In the context of corporate worship, I argue that it is unnecessary and detrimental to the basic principles of corporate worship that the church is bound to uphold.
(d) Pragmatic and financial returns must be judged as subordinate to the significant effects such a change might have on the piety and vitality of the church.
(e) Yes, it is possible to not put a screen in a church in the 21st century. Picture a projector screen in a monastery or another 'sacred' space. Screens are uniformly obtrusive and an intrusion of our own lust for technology in a space that should be timeless and conducive to meditation, listening, and corporate singing. For more resources on digital tech's dehumanizing impact, consult Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).


Photo by Olu Eletu on Unsplash

Biblical Worship Must be Reverent and Dignified

I want to give attention to the simple beauty of the liturgy of Reformed churches. This plainness is not because of a cultural aversion to beauty or sentiment. The popular art and music of Reformed communities express beauty and sentiment in equal measure. Nonetheless the sacred worship services of the Reformed are intentionally limited to the prescribed elements of worship contained in the Scriptures.

These elements of the worship service are divinely ordained in the pattern of the covenant renewal ceremony between God and his people in which he “promises to make the new creation a reality among his people.” This covenantal ceremony includes all the congregants as “the story of divine creation and faithfulness is followed by the unfaithfulness of the covenant partner, which in turn is met with divine solidarity to overcome the sin and unbelief of his people through his messiah.” I rehearse these crucial components of Reformed worship to emphasize that the liturgy of Reformed churches is simple because there is so much contained within it. It does not need embellishment or dramatization to be improved upon. In a rightly constituted worship service, the following profound encounter occurs after the votum and singing of the congregation:

"Representing God once more, the minister intercedes on behalf of the covenant people who have thus experienced the drama of the exodus again for themselves. They too have passed from death to life in this liturgical drama, from alienation and despair to the assurance of reconciliation and the response of praise from their side of the covenant – and on that basis they enter the Holy of Holies in this semirealized eschatology. With their covenant mediator and advocate representing their case in heaven, the community's intercession is effective, and the people are prepared to hear God's word in the sermon."

Finally, the last word of the service is “reserved for God, and his parting word is once more the word of Gospel, as God's blessing is laid upon the covenant people in the benediction.” The structure of this divine service is predicated on the principle that worship occurs in a dialogue between God and his people. The dialogical principle serves several purposes: it simplifies the service by removing any extraneous human inventions, it clarifies the service by assigning a clear role to each partner, and it affirms a covenantal relationship which God makes with his church.

Hughes Oliphant Old characterizes Reformed convictions about worship as convictions which arise from the first four commandments. The first commandment directs that “our worship, our deepest devotion, our most ardent love is to be directed to God rather than to ourselves.” John Calvin drew on the first commandment the Christian's obligation “with true and zealous godliness... to contemplate, fear, and worship, his majesty; to participate in his blessings; to seek his help at all times; to recognize, and by praises to celebrate, the greatness of his works – as the only goal of all the activities of this life.” The abundance of the Christian's desire to serve and praise God is particularly expressed in the worship which takes place on the Lord's Day in the house of God. Old comments that the “single greatest contribution that the Reformed liturgical heritage can make to contemporary American Protestantism is its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence and simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God.” I also want to draw attention to a commandment that does not receive much recognition in the context of worship, namely the third commandment. Old writes, “the third commandment tells us that were are not to use the Lord's name in vain. Vain means “empty.” The commandment teaches us to worship God sincerely and honestly, to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” to use the words of Jesus.” Worship is of first importance in the Reformed churches. It occupies the entirety of the corporate, public worship service.

(Resources cited: Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995); Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002); Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002); John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2, 2 vols., The Library of Christian Classics 21 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960)

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Book Recommendation: Ordinary


Michael Horton's book Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World is a great read for every believer who is struggling to keep up with the demands of every new kid on the block with a new strategy to make us bolder and better Christians. 

I'd highly recommend Dr. Horton's message of finding life in the ordinary activities of the Christian life. We so easily neglect the most important means by which God builds our faith and nourishes our souls: His Word and the Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord's Supper). 

Here's an excerpt that identifies precisely what is the problem in our time:

Commonly, the rhetoric of radical in our churches actually mirrors our culture, even when — no, especially when — it invokes the lingo of “countercultural,” “subversive,” “alternative,” “extreme,” and so forth. The likes of Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, and Calvin sought to reform the church. But for centuries now radical Protestants have been trying to reboot, reinvent, start over, and reconstitute the real church of the true saints over against the ordinary churches.
— Michael Horton, 'Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World'

Buy the book here

Read a helpful review of the book here

Book Recommendation: Learning from Lord Mackay

Learning from Lord Mackay: Life and Work in Two Kingdoms

Cameron Fraser, a pastor and writer from Lethbridge, Alberta, has written a book about Lord James Mackay of Scotland. For our congregation, there is a special connection with Lord Mackay as he is a member of one of our sister congregations in the Associated Presbyterian Churches. 

The book is available on and the foreword was written by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. 

Still need convincing to pick up your copy? Then read a little overview for yourself: 

James Mackay served as Lord Advocate of Scotland (1979-84) and Lord Chancellor of Great Britain (1987-97). He is, in the words of a past President of the Law Society of Scotland, “not only an outstanding man in his profession, but one of the most brilliant Scottish scholars of all time.” He is also a humble Christian who has served his Lord in church and state. This book seeks to introduce him to a wider Christian audience, while pointing out lessons that may be learned by others in political office and seeking to locate him in terms of the contemporary (largely American) “two kingdoms” controversy. “There is no Scotsman, indeed no British person in public life whom I admire more.”
— Dr. Sinclair Ferguson

Available in Paperback and Kindle versions

Psalm 100 When We're Hurting

When you come to church and something is weighing heavily on your heart, it's hard to sing, isn't it? We'd rather fall silent.

In our confusion or pain we hurt and singing a psalm for giving thanks feels like an impossibility.

Like the old testament saint Job whose story comes to mind so powerfully when we think of the doctrine of providence:

“He took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes. And his wife said to him “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die." But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:9-10 ESV)

Job spoke rightly.

Of the way of God and the proper response we are to have as we confront health and sickness, prosperity and poverty.

He spoke of the way of God with humility, reverence, and a profound recognition that God's ways are inscrutable to us – but that God's ways are good and righteous.

One of the Longest Psalms to Learn...

It was Charles Spurgeon who once said of Psalm 131, “it is one of the shortest Psalms to read but one of the longest to learn”. And he’s right, isn’t he?

We can pick this Psalm up and read it quite swiftly – and with just a few hours of practice we can have it committed to memory so that we can recite it at will. 

But to learn this way of living – this way of humbling ourselves before God – this way of Christian lowliness... of a will subdued to the will of God – that is a lifelong lesson. 

To simply sum up the psalm’s lesson, it is this: a believer rests with the greatest contentment in the Lord’s abiding love, without the grand boasting of those who are enemies of God. 

Looking for Signs to Assure Us of Salvation?

Photo by  Austin Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

In the Westminster Confession of Faith, the divines addressed the nature of our assurance of salvation. While many in our day strive after special signs or think they need a verbal affirmation from God before they'll be assured, we believe that the ordinary use of the means of grace is the greatest source of assurance to us! Why? Because these are the means the Holy Spirit uses to build up our faith and direct our lives! We don't need neon signs or fleeces (see story of Gideon in the book of Judges) - we need the Word of God!

Westminster Confession of Faith 18.1, 3

Although hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with
false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and estate of salvation
(which hope of theirs shall perish): yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love
him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, 
be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the
glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.
This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true
believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: 
yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, 
he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain
thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his call-
ing and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the
Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the
duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to

On the Office of Deacon...

On the occasion of Mr. Gerald Epp's ordination as a deacon in our congregation (for which we give thanks!), we reflected together on 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and what the Lord says regarding the elders and deacons which are to serve in each congregation of Christ. We take this instruction very seriously and believe that churches which do not have elders or deacons (or worse, fail to have either office) will surely be weak. Why? Because this is to neglect the means that Christ Jesus has established for his church!

So what is the particular calling of the deacons?

In brief, they are to serve as stewards of the needy and caretakers of the church. 

Arising from the division of responsibilities in the book of Acts, chapter 6, the calling of the deacon is to be of service to those who are in need – first to the widows of the Greeks who were being overlooked in the distribution of bread to alleviate poverty – and through the history of the church as those who minister to the various needs of those who are beset by sickness or accidents or hardships of many kinds. 

The office of the deacon was established by Christ through his apostles so that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their needs.

We should see in the deacons the hand of mercy of our LORD and his recognition that the weak and weary, the hungry and poor, are so precious to Him that he prepares men with a particular calling to oversee and provide for their care. 

This doesn't alleviate you of any responsibility to the needy but rather it directs us to be responsibly giving to others and ensuring their well-being. 

Much more could be said about the hundreds of ways that the deacons can actively take up their service – for they are much more than just the offering collectors and bill-payers for the church. They are men of dignity and thoughtfulness – who hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. They are Christ Jesus' gift to the church and the church knows great blessing through the active ministry of the deacons!