Signed by Peter Peters and Vasilij Ryzhuk, leaders in the "Unregistered Union of Churches," a desperate plea has just come out of Russia: "For thirty years we have suffered intense persecution, and now freedom is bringing another great harm to our churches...[American] evangelists accompanied by rock bands....We are embarrassed by this image of Christianity....We need spiritual food. Please give us true bread, not false cakes. It is true that rock music attracts people to the church, but not to godly living....We urge you...do not bring it to our country. Do not desecrate our teenagers with it. Even the unbelievers recognize it is unholy music and they cannot understand how American Christians can be so much like the world...and [are] disillusioned with Christianity."
Surely these brethren who have suffered so much for Christ have much to teach us. Yes, but—someone suggests—these long-persecuted believers have spent so much time isolated that they're behind the times. And, of course, music is a matter of taste and not defined in Scripture. "Rock music" is too vague a term. There are different kinds, and who is to judge? So the rationale goes.
We need not enter into such arguments. There are at least two biblical criteria that indict most of the contemporary Christian music scene and much of the Sunday morning worship in evangelical churches as well. These two criteria are 1) mood: is it befitting the presence of God; and 2) message: is there moral, spiritual and doctrinal content that convicts sinners, edifies the worshipers and exalts our Lord?
Check out your own church next Sunday; and if these criteria are not met, pray about what you should do. Don't succumb to a critical spirit. Try lovingly to bring some understanding to bear. Let your desire be to build up, to instruct and help rather than to condemn and tear down. And be patient. After all, there was perhaps a time when you, too, lacked discernment in these matters.
Let us deal with point 2 first. As I visit churches I am often saddened by the singing and can scarcely bring myself to participate in what passes for "worship." The old hymns, with their profound doctrinal content, have largely been replaced with empty, repetitive choruses. The melodies may be catchy and appealing, but the words are shallow, careless and sometimes unbiblical. The beat may be stirring and the hand-clapping enthusiastic, but the often-trite lyrics lack challenge for the heart and nourishment for the spirit.
Let's take "worship" as an example. It's largely a matter of singing in most churches. Yet too often the songs are a hindrance rather than a help. Why do we worship our Lord? What would cause us genuinely, from the heart, to worship the Father "in spirit and in truth" (Jn:4:23)? Ah, there's that word again. Yes, even when it comes to worship, we encounter once more that all-important ingredient, truth. Truth has meaning, doctrinal content; it is not a feeling or emotion (though it does stir emotions), but a conviction that grips heart, soul, spirit—and, yes, mind.
To sing repeatedly "worship Him, worship Him" is not enough. Worship is more than formula. It cannot be achieved in the abstract and with an empty head. Something must be going on in the mind, or the heart is not meaningfully stirred. Worship is not a sacrament or ceremony; it arises in the heart from awed recognition of who God is—knowing Him, His infinite love, holiness, power, mercy. Worship is not mindless emotionalism.
The songs we sing can't just set a mood for worship, but must give us some reason for worshiping as well. All too many of the modern choruses fail right there. Their appeal is more in their beat and tune than in their lyrics. Yet words are far more important than melody. There is no worship without understanding: and the deeper the understanding, the deeper the worship.
Right here is where the old hymns shine—in their words and the understanding they bring:
Son of God, 'twas love that made Thee,
Die our ruined souls to save;
'Twas our sins' vast load that laid Thee,
Lord of life, within the grave.
What a debt of love we owe thee!
There's sound doctrinal content that does not just say that we should love Him or that we do love Him, but reminds us why. Consider a well-known Charles Wesley hymn:
And can it be that I should gain,
An interest in the Savior's blood?
Died He for me who caused His pain,
For me who Him to death pursued?
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me!
Not only the melody, but the words stir the heart and teach truth which bears repeating and meditating upon. Let's consider one more example:
By weakness and defeat,
He won the Victor's crown;
Trod all our foes beneath His feet,
By being trodden down.
He Satan's power laid low.
Made sin, He sin o'erthrew.
Bowed to the grave, destroyed it so;
And Death, by dying, slew!
Great poetry, great teaching, and so powerfully presented! How tragic when such hymns are exchanged for the shallow, repetitive choruses that have become the mainstay in so many churches!
So much for message. What about mood? Without the right message the mood is meaningless, leaving one with a good "feeling" in the flesh but an emptiness in the spirit. Christian rock fails on both counts. The impudent, irreverent beat and raucous sound overwhelm one's perceptive faculties so that the words, even if they are excellent, can scarcely be heard, much less contemplated. Add to this the pitiful posturing, the contrived aura of glamour, the raw bid for audience adulation. Try to imagine a rock concert in God's presence! Would mere creatures, redeemed by grace, dare to "perform" before the throne of the thrice-holy Lord of the universe, the righteous Judge of men and angels? The mood generated is anything but awed reverence and the fear of God.
One could level the same criticism at most contemporary Christian music. The mood is often reflective of a heedless, we've-got-the-world-by-the-tail spirit rather than authentic Christian joy. Tunes are designed to arouse emotion without content; and the words are more often self-centered than God-centered. Here the disease becomes extremely serious and could even be fatal. In diagnosing the problem, we must take great care that we follow God's Word.
What's wrong with joyful singing? Nothing. Inspired of the Holy Spirit, David wrote, "In thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore" (Ps:16:11). Ah, yes, but what is meant by "joy" and "pleasure"? Surely the psalmist is not referring to the "happy hour" joy of a bar, or to the transitory pleasure found in amusement parks. The joy and pleasure around God's throne are not of this world. And there is one essential ingredient of which we may be certain: the fear of God.
How could fear be the fountain of peace, joy and worship? That question may indicate that we are strangers to God and to His joy! Watch a little Christian television, the strutting performance of some "evangelists" and "healers," the irreverent throwing around of "the anointing" of the Holy Spirit, and listen to the boasting bravado. One has the distinct impression that these "servants of God" know nothing of His fear. Listen to their "tongues" with the repetition of favorite words, their giddy laughfests supposedly with the Holy Spirit, weep at the spectacle and ask yourself again, "Where is the fear of God!"
Honesty compels us to point the finger at ourselves as well. An unbiased, heavenly observer watching our lives, sitting in on our "worship services," listening to our conversations, would be compelled to say of most Christians today what the psalmist said of the ungodly in his time: "There is no fear of God before [their] eyes" (Ps:36:1; Rom:3:18). When did you last hear a sermon preached on the fear of God? When did you last attend a church service where the awesome sense of God's holy presence brought weeping and repentance? When did you, or I, in our daily devotions, last fall on our faces before Him in awestruck wonder and worship and godly fear?
Take your concordance and follow "the fear of God/the Lord" through the Bible and receive much-needed instruction. Israel was told to "fear the Lord thy God" (Deut 6:2) before she was commanded to "love the Lord thy God with all thine heart" (6:5). In a summation of His will for Israel, God declared, "What doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul" (Deut 10:12).
That the fear of God, the awesome reverence that comes from knowing Him and being in His presence, is foundational and essential to our relationship with Him and His blessing upon our lives is clear. "The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him" (Ps:103:17). "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him" (Ps:25:14).
The instruction, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom/knowledge," is found repeatedly (Ps:111:10; Prov:1:7; 9:10). Solomon exhorted, "The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death" (Prov:14:27). And again: "Let all the earth fear the Lord: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him" (Ps:33:8).
Such a sense of God's awesome holiness is virtually unknown among Christians! Why is that fear of God, that holy reverence and overwhelming wonder so lacking in our lives and in our churches and in Christian media? How can men be so blind as to treat God as though He were their servant instead of falling on their faces before Him? For many, He's a cosmic bellhop who exists simply to give them what they want. Apparently they don't yet know God!
See John falling as dead at the feet of His resurrected Lord (Rev:1:17) and the reason for the lack of the fear of God among today's Christians becomes clear. Surely there would be profound reverence, awe and godly fear were we suddenly to find ourselves in God's presence. Obviously, then, the absence of that fear which the Bible extols betrays how far we are from Him and explains the lack of passionate love for our Lord. Let us seek His face (Ps:27:8; 105:4).
So much that passes for Christianity would be exposed as false were it displayed before the throne of God. The selfism teaching that Christian psychology has brought into the church is one flagrant example. It is not just ludicrous, but grotesque to imagine anyone being concerned about his "self-identity," his "authentic personhood," his "self-image," or feeling good about himself in the brilliant light of God's presence! All mutterings of "positive self-talk" and concern about one's "significance" are silenced before His throne. Any thought of self-esteem or self-worth would suddenly be revealed in the brilliance of God's glory as an evil from hell—and instantly be consumed by His splendor.
Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471) knew something of that revealing and consuming Presence: "I will speak unto my Lord who am but dust and ashes. If I count myself more, behold Thou standest against me, and my iniquities bear true testimony and I cannot gainsay it. But if I abase myself, and bring myself to nought, and shrink from all self-esteem, and grind myself to dust, which I am, Thy grace will be favourable unto me, and Thy light will be near unto my heart; and all self-esteem, how little soever it be, shall be swallowed up in the depths of my nothingness, and shall perish for ever." Self is our problem.
Do you long to be delivered of self? Spend time in the presence of God! How far are they from God whose only communion with Him is in attempts to get Him to bless their plans! Most Christians are so taken up with themselves and their own ambitions that they are strangers to God and His will for their lives. And yet they remain self-satisfied. What a contradiction! How can it be? God reveals the answer in His Word.
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the Lord search the heart" (Jer:17:9-10). What a devastating indictment of mankind! What a humbling revelation of the human heart—the heart of each one of us! No encouragement for esteeming self here. The selfist teachings that "Christian psychology" has brought into the church contradict God's Word, mock His fear, deceive those who are seeking a solution to their ungodly behavior, and, though sometimes seeming to work for a season, in the end leave one worse off than before.
It is not the traumas or abuse one may have suffered, whether in childhood or later in life, real as those may have been, that make us what we are. It is our hearts which are by our very nature self-centered, self-exalting, self-seeking, yes, evil, as Jesus said: "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man" (Mt 15:19-20). Is there any hope?
Repentance and coming to the Cross to embrace Christ's death as the crucifixion of self and out of that death to become partakers of His resurrection life—that is the only solution. Anything else is but a rationalization to avoid the Cross and salvage something for self, be it esteem, image, worth, significance, authentic personhood or any of the other slogans that are deceiving millions.
It is not therapy that we need, but God! The answer lies not in looking within but in turning to Him, as Jeremiah confessed: "O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps" (10:23). David knew that God was his only hope, both to diagnose and heal his wicked heart. "Search me, O God," he cried, "and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps:139:23-24). We need to put ourselves entirely in God's hands!
The fear of God, largely missing in today's Christianity, is not just an Old Testament doctrine. Spiritual cleansing and holiness can only be perfected "in the fear of God" (2 Cor:7:1). Even loving Christian fellowship can only be "in the fear of God" (Eph:5:21). This godly fear characterized the early churches: they "were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied" (Acts:9:31). That fear, that awesome reverence which comes from knowing God, must be restored in each of our lives if we are to be what He desires. May it be so, to His glory! TBC