Biblical theology is a way of reading the Bible. It is a hermeneutic. It assumes that Scripture’s many authors and many books are telling one story by one divine author—about Christ.
Sound slightly academic? It is, but…
The discipline of biblical theology is essential to guarding and guiding your church. It guards churches against false stories and wrong paths. It guides the church toward better preaching, better practices, better paths.
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY AS CHURCH GUARD
Think, for instance, of theological liberalism. It recasts the narrative of salvation as God’s work to overcome, say, economic injustice or the self-centered political conscience. Such redemptive storylines may not be all wrong, but they remind me of how one of my daughters will narrate a fight with her sister. She will speak truth, but she will also omit details, redistribute emphases, make tenuous interpretive connections. So it is with the narratives of liberalism and the Bible’s gospel storyline.
And so it is with Roman Catholicism, where the priests and sacraments play a mediatorial role that smacks heavily of the old covenant.
Or with the prosperity gospel, which also imports elements of the old covenant into the new, only it’s talk of blessing.
Other groups don’t bring the redemptive past into the present, they bring the redemptive future into the now. Once upon a time it was the perfectionist Anabaptists who thought they could bring heaven to earth right quick. The progressive liberals tried this a century ago. Now it is those who are hopped-up on transforming culture that offer subtle re-narrations.
The list is long, whether we are thinking of “Christian” cults like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, or movements within churches such as the social gospel, liberation theology, American messianism, or some forms of fundamentalist separatism. Some better, some worse.
The point is, imbalanced (or false) gospels and imbalanced (or false) churches are built either on narratively-mindless “proof texts” or on whole stories gone awry. Either they wrongly connect the Bible’s major covenants; or they have too much continuity or too much discontinuity; or they fail to distinguish type from antitype; or they under-realize or over-realize their eschatology. Maybe they promise heaven on earth now; maybe they disembody the spiritual life now.
In each case, bad or imbalanced biblical theologies proclaim a bad or imbalanced gospel, and such gospels build bad or imbalanced churches.
Meanwhile, good biblical theology guards the gospel and guards a church. “A robust biblical theology tends to safeguard Christians against the most egregious reductionisms,” says D. A. Carson.
That means it’s a pastors job (i) to know good biblical theology and (ii) have some sense of the bad biblical theologies that impact people walking into his church. Today, many of those folk have been weaned on some version of the prosperity gospel. Can you explain why that milk is bad? (For help, see here and especially here.)
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY AS CHURCH GUIDE
But biblical theology is not just a guard, it’s a guide—a guide to good preaching, good outreach and engagement, good corporate worship, good church structures, and the healthy Christian life.
A Guide to Good Preaching
When you sit down to study a text and prepare a sermon, biblical theology keeps you from proof texting or telling an imbalanced story of redemption.
It places each text in the right canonical context, and helps you to see what your text has to do with the person and work of Christ. It wards off moralism so that one preaches Christian sermons. It rightly relates indicative and imperative, and faith and works. It teaches evangelistic exposition. It ensures that every sermon is part of the big story.
In short, pastor, you need biblical theology to do the most important thing in your job: preach and teach God’s Word. For more on this, see Jeramie Rinne’s “Biblical Theology and Gospel Proclamation.”
A Guide to Good Outreach and Engagement
Turning to think about a church’s outreach and engagement with the world outside, biblical theology rightly balances our expectations between expecting too much (over-realized eschatology) or demanding too little (cheap grace, easy-believism, belonging-before-believing, not preaching the imperative).
Good biblical theology will not promise our best life now (whether that means health and wealth, transforming the city, winning the favor of the elite, or retaking America). But nor does it shy away from engaging culture and seeking the good of the city in deed ministry for the sake of love and justice.
It makes word outreach (evangelism and missions) primary, but it does not falsely separate word and deed. These are inseparable for the church’s witness and mission, as the storyline from Adam to Abraham to Israel to David to Christ to church makes clear.
A Guide to Good Corporate Worship
Is David’s naked ark-of-the-covenant dance normative for church gatherings? No? How about the incense used by Old Testament priests, or the use of instruments and choirs, or “making sacrifices” for various holidays, or the reading and explaining of the biblical text? A right biblical theology helps to answer what to bring into the new covenant era and what to leave in the old.
Much depends, again, on how one puts together the covenants, one’s approach to continuity and discontinuity, and one’s understanding of Christ’s work of fulfillment. It also depends on one’s understanding of what Christ’s gathered church has been authorized to do.
All this may sound academic, pastor, but your practices depend upon some biblical theology. The question is, have you thought through which?
For more on this, see Bobby Jamieson’s article “Biblical Theology and Corporate Worship.”
A Guide to Good Church Structures
By the same token, the storyline of Scripture requires us to pay attention to matters of continuity and discontinuity for how we organize our churches. In terms of continuity, God’s people have always and an inside and an outside, which means we need to practice membership and discipline. In terms of discontinuity, the leaders of God’s people change dramatically from the old covenant to new. First, all of God’s people become priests. Second, God’s elders are undershepherds who feed the flock through the Word.
No doubt, the question of who can be a church member depends on biblical theology. Is membership just for believers, or believers and their children? It depends on the amount of continuity and discontinuity you see between circumcision and baptism.
A Guide to the Healthy Christian Life
Finally, it’s worth considering the significance of biblical theology for the healthy Christian life, and how that life connects to the local church.
In the story of the exodus, redemption was corporate. But in the New Testament, redemption is individual, right?
Well, it depends on how one understands the relationship between the old covenant and new, and what Christ accomplishes in the new. Might one not argue that the existence of a covenantal head requires a covenantal people (see Jer. 31:33; 1 Peter 2:10)? What’s more, Paul seems to argue that the dividing wall of partition between Jew and Gentile fell and that “one new man” was created in precisely the same moment that sinners were reconciled to God (Eph. 2:11-22; for more on the corporate aspects of conversion, see here).
If it’s true that salvation in the New Testament is directed toward a people every bit as much as in the Old, even if every individual’s experience of that salvation occurs at different times and not together as in the exodus, then it would seem that the Christian life is fundamentally corporate. And growth is corporate. And life in the faith is corporate. It was dad who adopted me, but he adopted me into a family, so that being his son or daughter means being their brother or sister.
Well, this corporate reality has countless implications for everything in a church’s teaching, fellowship, and culture. A primary goal for the existence of a local church—if this biblical theological account is correct—is simply to be a church. It’s to be this new family, new people, new nation, new culture, new body. So much of spiritual growth is not about what I do in my quiet times; it’s how I learn to take on the new identity as a family member.
On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a biblical theology that overemphasizes the individual at the expense of the body (as some conservative theologies can do) or overemphasizes corporate and societal structures at the expense of individual culpability (as some liberal theologies do).
Furthermore, your understanding of that storyline helps you to know what to expect of your fellow members: how much righteousness, how much victory over sin, how much spiritual healing for the victim of injustice, how much restoration in broken relationships. The shape of the biblical storyline—as you understand it—will shape your approach to tragedy and evil and righteousness as you encounter it in your life and others.
In other words, a right biblical theology leads to an already/not yet vision of the Christian life. It’s easy to err toward too much “already” or too much “not yet.”
Bottom line: a right biblical theology offers a trustworthy guide to the Christian life, particularly as that life relates to the local church. And it guards the church against wrong emphases, wrong expectations, and a wrong evangel.
Jonathan Leeman, an elder of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and the editorial director of 9Marks, is the author of several books on the local church. You can follow him on Twitter.
Good writing, says Roy Peter Clark in his excellent Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, doesn't employ stereotypes, but stands on the foundation of the classic story archetypes. It uses those archetypes to manipulate, frustrate, or fulfill reader expectations in novel ways.
He then lists a number of the classic narrative archetypes:
- the journey there and back
- winning the prize
- winning or losing the loved one
- loss and restoration
- the blessing becomes the curse
- overcoming obstacles
- the wasteland restored
- rising from the ashes
- the ugly duckling
- the emperor has no clothes
- descent into the underworld (Writing Tools, 185).
It's not difficult to recall scores of novels, movies, and children's stories that employ these basic archtypes.
Reading over that list as a Christian, however, one cannot help but notice how the coming, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ fulfills every single one of these archetypes. Consider them again:
- the journey there and back: Think of Philippians 2:6-11, which narrates Jesus' leaving the Father's side in heaven, coming to earth, and then returning to glory.
- winning the prize: Did Christ not win a people for himself?
- winning or losing the loved one: Indeed, he won a bride for himself.
- loss and restoration: He gave up his life as a ransom to save many.
- the blessing becomes the curse: The blessed One became a curse for us, so that we might be blessed.
- overcoming obstacles: Remember him in the wilderness, overcoming the temptations that defeated both Adam and Israel?
- the wasteland restored: He showed himself to be the blessed man of Psalm 1, who delighted in God's Word and whose life and death ushered in a new Eden.
- rising from the ashes: The resurrection and a new creation!
- the ugly duckling: He had not form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
- the emperor has no clothes: Satan believed the kingdoms of the world were his to give, but Christ exposed the charade by binding the strong man and his minions.
- descent into the underworld (Writing Tools, 185): ...that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures...
I have no major point to make from all of this other than...
Students of literature, give glory to God in Christ!
The life, death, and resurrection of Christ provide us with the greatest story ever told. Not only does it employ many of the classic archetypes in unexpected and shocking ways, the story actually happened. God moved history and sent his own Son to make it happen.
And doesn't that mean, Christian, that each one of these archetypes comes to define your life and mine as the beneficiaries of history's greatest protagonist?
The Christian religion is riddled with difficult truths that defy human understanding. The Trinity: he is three; they are one. Jesus Christ: fully God, fully man. Compatibilism: divine sovereignty, human responsibility. God’s sovereign grace: he loves all, yet chooses some.
Consider that last one for a moment. How can one legitimately affirm that God desires that everyone be saved while upholding the biblical claim that God unconditionally elects only some? This is the question that John Piper addresses in his short new book Does God Desire All to Be Saved? In it, Piper takes the bull by the horns and argues persuasively from Scripture that God’s sincere desire for the salvation of all people is not at cross-purposes with his election of a select few.
The book is essentially a succinct systematic theology on God’s will. The lynchpin of Piper’s thesis is that we need to describe God’s will from two distinct vantage points: his hidden will of decree and his revealed will of command. These “two wills” often diverge: God regularly wills (determines) events to come about which contravene the very things that he wills (commands).
The book is organized in four chapters. In chapter one, Piper introduces four of the go-to texts that are used to affirm God’s sincere desire that all be saved: 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, and Matthew 23:27.
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“Three points and a poem” may be a caricature of evangelical preaching, but for too many years and too many preachers it was the norm. Thankfully, a return to expository preaching that feeds the flock and proclaims the gospel has given a new hope for this generation.
Expository preaching does not take place without devoted effort. Bryan Chapell—former president of Covenant Theological Seminary, long-time homiletics professor, and current pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois—capably details the needed preparation process for expository preaching in Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. Chapell brings his wealth of pastoral preaching and homiletical instruction into a well-crafted volume of eleven chapters and twelve helpful appendixes. He approaches his subject through three sections.
PRINCIPLES FOR EXPOSITORY PREACHING
Chapell’s first section puts the weight of expository preaching on three things. First, the power of God’s Word in preaching. “Good preaching,” he writes, “in one sense involves getting out of the way so that the Word can do its work” (34). Priority is given to the Word rather than the preacher’s ability. Second, the power of a holy life supports and confirms what the preacher asserts. “No truth calls louder for pastoral holiness than the link between a preacher’s character and a sermon’s reception” (38). Third, Chapell reinforces the power of gospel-focus in every sermon. “Without a redemptive focus, we may believe we have exegeted Scripture when in fact we have simply translated its parts and parsed its pieces without reference to the role they have in God’s eternal plan”(40).
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Tim Keller’s commendation on this book’s cover reads, “Alec Motyer has had a profound, formative influence on my preaching.” It’s easy to see why. Motyer, well known for his magisterial work on Isaiah, gives us another work of immense value. Preaching? is an opportunity to eavesdrop on the wisdom of a man who has been preaching for a long time—so long, in fact, that he transparently admits to using one particular sermon nineteen times since it first saw the light of day in 1963! This book is packed with just the kind of profound insight and poignant reminders you would expect from a man who has been at it that long.
Chapters 1-5 are somewhat introductory, advancing the central role of proclamation in the life of the church, highlighting the primary need for clarity in teaching, and clarifying what is meant by exposition. Motyer says that exposition is “the restatement of a Scripture…so that its message emerges with clarity” (30).
Chapters 6-11 are the heart of the book, presenting the six aspects of Motyer’s method for sermon preparation: examination, analysis, orientation, harvesting, presentation, and application. These, he says, are not successive steps, but run parallel to one another, “like a sixfold track leading to our destination” (37). Chapters 12-14 conclude with counsel regarding the pastor’s personal holiness, attentiveness in prayer for the flock, and the necessity of making Christ central in all proclamation.
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How would you describe your church and your church staff in a few words? Would you say that your church is “missional” and that your staff is “effective?”
That’s what veteran pastors and now church-growth consultants Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittian want to help pastors say through their book, Effective Staffing for Vital Churches: The Essential Guide to Finding and Keeping the Right People.
I can’t with confidence say Effective Staffing is essential reading, though it is clear and instructive—depending on what you hope to gain from it.
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All of us will, at times, be called to endure humbly a leader’s mistakes and sins. Nonetheless, should you find yourself in a church where the leadership is characteristically abusive, I would, in most cases, encourage you to flee. Flee to protect your discipleship, to protect your family, to set a good example for the members left behind, to serve non-Christian neighbors by not lending credibility to the church’s ministry.
How do you recognize abusive leadership? Paul requires two witnesses for a charge to be leveled against an elder (1 Tim. 5:19), probably because he knows that leaders will be charged with infelicities more often than others, often unfairly. That said, abusive churches and Christian leaders characteristically
- Make dogmatic prescriptions in places where Scripture is silent.
- Rely on intelligence, humor, charm, guilt, emotions, or threats rather than on God’s Word and prayer (see Acts 6:4).
- Play favorites.
- Punish those who disagree.
- Employ extreme forms of communication (tempers, silent treatment).
- Recommend courses of action which always, somehow, improves the leader’s own situation, even at the expense of others.
- Speak often and quickly.
- Seldom do good deeds in secret.
- Seldom encourage.
- Seldom give the benefit of the doubt.
- Emphasize outward conformity, rather than repentance of heart.
- Preach, counsel, disciple, and oversee the church with lips that fail to ground everything in what Christ has done in the gospel and to give glory to God.
This post is taken from Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman, © 2010, pp. 118-19. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
Identity matters. It matters in our culture, which is awash in identity politics and the unimpeachable claims that identity provides. And it matters among Christians. We call people to live up to and live out the reality of who they are in Christ: an alien and stranger, salt and light, a member of the body of Christ or bride of Christ, a temple of the Spirit, a new creation, and so on. We encourage one another to put on the new self.
Yet too often, the New Testament identity markers are more informed by our own background and cultural assumptions than by the storyline of the Bible. The story of the alien and stranger can become the story of the cultural fundamentalist justifying his disengagement. The story of the bride can easily become the story of self-centered sentimentalism in which, like American brides every Saturday, we are the point and center of it all.
THE STORY OF SONSHIP
But if we’re going to know how to use the Bible’s identity markers in our counseling and discipling, then we need to understand the larger biblical story of our identity as sons and daughters of God. This story is a powerful tool for combatting the narcissistic discipleship that passes for so much of Christianity in America.
From Adam and Eve’s creation after God’s likeness, to their responsibility to represent God as vice-regents over creation (Gen. 1:26-28), to their privilege of intimacy with God (Gen 3:8) and unique ability to reflect back to him his glory, to their obligation to obey (Gen. 2:15), the imago Dei is cast in the form of sonship. Right from the start, the pattern is laid down: like father, like son. As God ruled over Creation, so the son was to represent that rule.
Of course the first son, Adam, was disobedient to his Father. The image of God was not lost, but it now came with a cursed inheritance from our earthly father, a nature corrupted and marred by sin. From this point on, inclusion in God’s family was not by birth, but by adoption.
A New Beginning?
In Genesis 12, Abram, the son of an idolater, is adopted by God to become the father of a new nation. He’s given a new name: Abraham. He’s given the promise of a son, and what’s more, an inheritance for that son.
Again and again, that promise is called into question: by barrenness, by treachery, by famine, by death itself. When God calls to Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:2), it appears that the promise and story of the son is over, because the son is still the son of Adam who deserves to die.
But God is not finished. He rescues Abraham’s son, and Isaac’s son, and Jacob’s sons, until the son has become the whole nation of Israel.
In Exodus 4, God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” God then rescues his corporate son, Israel, from the serpent king and brings his son into his inheritance, the promised land, a second Garden of Eden.
God also raises up a king, a man after his own heart, named David, and promises that his son will rule over a kingdom that will never end. David’s son will be God’s son, and will represent both God and his people. He will rule in righteousness, and do the work the Father gives him, rescuing his people from their enemies.
But neither the corporate son nor the sons of David are faithful. They continue their rebellion. By the end of the Old Testament, David’s throne is vacant.
The Son Comes, and Makes us Sons
Then the true Son of God came. Jesus is the Divine Son incarnate, the true King, the Messiah who came to do the work his Father gave him (John 4:34, 5:19, 6:38). He declared that he represented God: that if you’d seen him, you’d seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the true imago Dei, the second Adam, the true Israel. Finally, like Father, like Son.
Incredibly, the corporate son rejected him. Yet God raised the Son from the dead, and seated him on the throne of heaven itself, so that all the sons of disobedience who turn from their sins and are united to the true Son by faith are given the right to become children of God, adopted into God’s family.
Having been adopted, they are conformed to the image of the Son he loves. This process will not stop until the day we see him, and are finally like him. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God” (1 John 3:2). And when we are finally like him, we will reign with him, as sons and daughters of God (2 Tim. 2:2; Rev. 20:4, 6).
DISCIPLING AND COUNSELING THE STORY OF SONSHIP
How does this story of sonship impact the way we use this biblical identity in our discipling and counseling? I want to highlight four things.
1. The Father Loves the Sons Because the Father Loves the Son
First, the Father loves the sons because the Father loves the Son. God’s love for us as sons does not begin with us. It begins with his love of the Son Jesus Christ. Why? Because the Son always has been and always will be obedient to the Father (John 10:17). And it is that love that spills over into love for us, the sons who are united to Christ by faith.
We need to get this into our heads as disciplers and counselors. We can say “God loves you” all day long and it won’t make a dent, because people know deep down that God’s love is not deserved. But when I’m told that God loves Christ, and that I’ve been adopted in Christ by faith, I now have something to put my confidence in, something that isn’t contradicted by my knowledge of myself.
Christian, you are loved, not because you’re lovely or obedient, but because Christ is lovely and obedience, and you are in Christ. You have been adopted.
2. A Son Glorifies his Father by Representing Him before the World
Second, the role of a son is to bring glory to his Father by representing him before the world. Jesus made this point about his own life repeatedly. John 5:19: the Son “can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” And all of this is to bring glory to the Father. As Jesus prayed, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).
But what is true of Christ is also true of the sons who are in Christ. Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Ephesians 5:1: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.” Heirs of God are to bear the Father’s name and to advance the Father’s reputation. That is a high calling and privilege.
3. The Privilege of the Son Is a Secure Inheritance
Third, the privilege of the Son is a secure inheritance. Jesus makes this point: “Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever” (John 8:35). Paul picks up the same idea: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out Abba, Father. So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir” (Gal. 4:6). Far more than an emotional and psychological experience of love is promised in this verse, we are promised an inheritance and an enduring place in the family. That inheritance is certain and secure.
What is this inheritance? The main picture in the Old Testament is land. In the present age, we aren’t given a land, but the Spirit. And incredibly, the Spirit is just a down payment. Our full inheritance still awaits, for our full inheritance is the Triune God himself in a new creation that is perfectly designed for our flourishing and his glory.
4. The Goal of the Son Is Obedience
Fourth, the goal of the Son is obedience. That should have been Adam and Israel and David’s goal. But it was without doubt Jesus’ goal. He was obedient to the Father to the very end. It wasn’t a grudging obedience, wishing there was another way. It wasn’t a pitiful obedience, in the hope that perhaps the Father would love him if he obeyed. It wasn’t a prideful, “Hey, look at me!” obedience. It was a willing obedience—“I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). It was a confident obedience—“because you loved me before the Creation of the world” (John 17:24). It was a humble obedience—Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers (Heb. 2:11). And this obedience was his joy.
When we use the language of sonship in our discipleship and our counseling, if we merely convey the promise of intimacy and access, which Romans 8 teaches, then we are giving only part of the story. Sons are not merely the recipients of love, empty love cups that need to be filled. They are also those who actively love their Father. And as John tells us, “This is love for God: to obey his commands” (2 John 6)
I would go so far as to say that the dominant theme attached to sonship in the Old Testament and New isn’t intimacy, access, affection, or even security. It’s obedience.
It all comes together in Romans 8. God predestined us to be conformed to the likeness, the image, of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:29). And therefore, Paul says, “we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:12-14) The goal of sons is obedience.
The next thing Paul says is that by the Spirit we cry, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). And so we come full circle. Intimacy and obedience go hand in hand in the story of the Son.
A NEW STORY
We live in a therapeutic age, an age of broken relationships and fractured families, where fathers are jerks, or buffoons, or task masters, or just plain absent. Sons raise themselves into manhood through images on the internet and TV. Frankly, daughters fare even worse. So it shouldn’t surprise us that in the biblical language of sons and daughters, we find a powerful antidote to a deadly poison.
But in fact, in our identity as sons and daughters of God we’ve been given something far more powerful than an antidote to the failings of our time. We’ve been given an identity that calls us beyond ourselves and our emotional needs to the story of the glory of God.
One day our hope will be rewarded; our work will come to an end. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Rom. 8:21). And that expectation will not be disappointed. On that day, a new story will begin: the story of the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God.
Michael Lawrence is the senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon and the author of Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry.
A mother thrust into single parenthood because of a tragic car accident. A father loses his job. A son or daughter diagnosed with cancer. A tornado eats a city. Yet another school shooting occurs.
All of these circumstances stir us to ask: Where is God in the midst of suffering? Why does he permit affliction? Why do I struggle with sin?
If you’re looking for help with these questions, I recommend Thomas Watson’s All Things for Good. Thomas Watson, a man acquainted with affliction, lost four children in their youth and wrote this book one year after the Act of Uniformity ejected 2,000 pastors from their pulpits, himself included.
All Things for Good is a rigorous exposition of Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (KJV). Watson treats this passage over a series of nine chapters.
Chapters 1-3 focus on the verse’s first part, covering how the best things work, how the worst things work, and why all things work for good. Chapters 4-6 explore the significance of “to them that love God,” examining love itself, the tests of love, and concluding with an exhortation to love. Chapters 7-8 attend to effectual calling, and chapter 9 concludes this discussion by looking at God’s purpose for all good things.
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What exactly are we doing when we gather as churches for worship? And how do we know what we should be doing in those weekly gatherings?
Naturally, evangelical Christians turn to Scripture for guidance on these questions, but where in Scripture do we look? There’s plenty about worship in the Old Testament—about prayers and sacrifices and choirs and cymbals and much else. But does all that material actually apply to new covenant gatherings of believers?
What we need in order to answer these questions is a biblical theology of worship. Biblical theology is the discipline that helps us trace both the unity and diversity, the continuity and discontinuity, within the sprawling storyline of Scripture.
In this article I’m going to sketch, all too briefly, a biblical theology of corporate worship. Four steps will take us there: (1) gathered worship in the Old Testament; (2) fulfillment in Christ; (3) gathered worship in the New Testament; (4) reading the whole Bible for corporate worship.
1. GATHERED WORSHIP IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Ever since God’s people were banished from his presence after the fall in Genesis 3, God has been at work gathering them back to himself. So when Israel suffered in chains in Egypt, God rescued them not just so that they would be free from oppression, but so that they would worship him in his presence (Ex. 3:12, 18). God led his people out of Egypt and brought them to his own dwelling place (Ex. 15:13, 17).
Where is that dwelling place? At first, it’s the tabernacle, the elaborate tent in which the priests would offer sacrifices for the people’s sins and impurities. We read in Exodus 29:44–46,
I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.
The goal of the Exodus was that God would dwell among his people, and he does this by means of the holy place (tabernacle) and people (priesthood) he appointed for that purpose.
When God brought Israel out of Egypt, he took them to himself as his people. And the way he confirmed this new relationship with Israel is by cutting a covenant with them, often called the “Mosaic covenant.” In Exodus 19, the Lord reminds the people what he’s done for them in rescuing them from Egypt, and then promises that if they obey the terms of his covenant, they will be his treasured possession (Ex. 19:1–6).
The Lord confirmed this covenant with the people in Exodus 24, and all the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy flesh out the terms of this covenant. All these details specify how God’s people are to live with God and each other within this specific covenant God has made with them.
So the detailed sacrifices and purification rituals described in Leviticus are a means of repairing breaches in covenant fellowship. The cult maintains the covenant.
A handful of times a year all Israelites were commanded to gather together before the Lord at his tabernacle, for the festivals of the Passover, firstfruits, and so on (Lev. 23). Apart from these festivals, the regular offering of sacrifices was carried out by the priests, and individual Israelites came to the tabernacle (and later the temple) only when they needed to offer a specific sacrifice for sin or impurity.
In other words, for Israel, corporate worship was a special, few-times-a-year occasion. Worship, understood as exclusive devotion to the Lord, was something that Israelites were called to practice around the clock (Deut. 6:13–15). But in the sense of having intimate access to God’s presence, worship was restricted to specific people, places, and times. God dwelled among his people, yes, but that presence was restricted to the tabernacle and guarded by the priests.
2. FULFILLMENT IN CHRIST
The turning point in the storyline of Scripture is the incarnation of God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. All God’s promises are fulfilled in him (2 Cor. 1:20). All the Old Testament types—the institutions of the priesthood, temple, and kingship, the events of the exodus, exile, and return—find their fulfillment in him. So in order to understand the whole Bible’s theology of worship, we have to understand how Jesus fulfills and transforms the worship of the Mosaic covenant.
Tabernacle, and later the temple, was where God manifested his presence among his people; Jesus fulfills and therefore replaces these old-covenant structures. John tells us that the Word became flesh and—literally—tabernacled among us (John 1:14). Jesus promised, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:20). In other words, Jesus’ body is now the temple, the place where God meets his people, manifests his presence, and deals with their sin (John 2:21–22). That’s why Jesus can say that an hour is coming when true worshipers will no longer need worship in Jerusalem, but will worship in spirit and truth (John 4:21–24).
Jesus fulfills and replaces the earthly temple of Jerusalem. He is now the “place” where true worshipers worship God.
Jesus also fulfills and replaces the entire sacrificial system associated with the Mosaic covenant and its tabernacle and temple. Hebrews tells us that, unlike the priests who had to offer daily sacrifices, Jesus atoned for the people’s sins “once for all when he offered up himself’ (Heb. 7:27). Jesus’ single offering of himself doesn’t just purify the flesh like the old covenant sacrifices, but instead purifies our conscience, renewing us inwardly (Heb. 9:13–14). Because Jesus has perfected his people by a single offering, there is no longer a need or place for the offering of bulls and goats (Heb. 10:1–4, 10, 11–18).
Jesus fulfills and replaces the Levitical sacrifices. His blood now secures our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12).
I could go on and on like this. The point is that Jesus’ saving work ushers in a radical shift in how God relates to his people. The new covenant Jesus inaugurates makes the old one—the covenant God made at Sinai, through Moses—obsolete (Heb. 8:6–7, 13). Now, God’s people have their sins forgiven through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. Now, God’s people experience his gracious presence through faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit. Now, all God’s people have intimate access to God (Heb. 4:16, 10:19–22), not just a small number of priests.
3. GATHERED WORSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
What does all this mean for gathered worship in the new covenant era? The first thing to note is that the Old Testament’s terms for worship have been applied to the whole lives of believers. In Romans 12:1 Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Now we don’t offer animals as sacrifices but our very selves. The Christian’s whole life is an act of sacrificial service to God.
Or consider Hebrews 13:15: “Through him [that is, Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Praise is our sacrifice, and we offer it continually—not just for an hour on Sunday morning. The fruit of lips that acknowledge God’s name includes songs of praise, but much more too: boldly confessing the gospel in public, speaking words of truth and love to others, bringing every word we say under Christ’s dominion.
This means that “worship” isn’t something we mainly do at church on Sunday. Instead, worship should suffuse our entire lives. For the Christian, worship isn’t confined to sacred times and places, because we are united by faith to Christ, the one who is God’s temple, and we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, making us both individually and collectively the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16–17, 6:19; cf. Eph. 2:22).
What then characterizes corporate worship in the new covenant? Reading and preaching Scripture (1 Tim. 4:14); singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs together (Eph. 5:18–19; Col. 3:16); praying (1 Tim. 2:1–2, 8); celebrating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:17–34); and stirring one another up to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24–25).
One of the most striking things about corporate worship in the new covenant is the persistent focus on building up the whole body. Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). We teach and admonish one another as we sing to the Lord. As we praise God, we build each other up. Paul goes so far as to say that everything in the gathered assembly should be done with a view to building up the body in Christ (1 Cor. 14:26).
What’s unique about the church’s weekly gathering is not that it’s the time when we worship, but that it’s the time when we build each other up by worshiping God together.
Because of the new covenant Christ inaugurated, gathered worship in the new covenant era has a whole different fabric than gathered worship under the old covenant. Instead of a few times a year, gathered worship is now weekly. Instead of meeting at the temple in Jerusalem, believers gather in local churches wherever they live. Instead of God’s presence being restricted to the Holy of Holies and guarded by priests, God now dwells in all of his people by the Spirit, and Christ is present to his people wherever they gather (Matt. 18:20). Instead of performing an elaborate series of sacrifices and offerings, Christians gather to hear the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word, and see the Word in the ordinances. And all of this aims at building up the body in love so that we all attain to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11–16).
4. READING THE WHOLE BIBLE FOR CORPORATE WORSHIP
How then to do we look to Scripture to teach us what to do in corporate worship?
First, I think it’s important to affirm that Scripture does in fact teach us what we should do in the church’s regular assemblies. Remember that while all of life is worship, the church’s weekly gathering occupies a special place in the Christian life. All Christians are required to gather with the church (Heb. 10:24–25); church attendance is not optional for the Christian. This means that, effectively, everything a church does in worship becomes a required practice for its members. And Paul urges Christians not to allow any humanly devised regulations or worship practices to be imposed on their consciences (Col. 2:16–23).
I would suggest that these biblical principles add up to what has historically been called the “regulative principle” of worship. That is, in their corporate gatherings, churches must carry out only those practices that are positively prescribed in Scripture, whether by explicit command or normative example. To do anything else would be to compromise Christian freedom. So churches should look to Scripture to tell us how to worship together, and should do only what Scripture tells us to do.
But that raises the question, what exactly does Scripture tell us to do? To put it more precisely, how do we tell what biblical material on worship is normative and binding? To answer this question in full would take a book; here I’ll offer the briefest of sketches.
Discerning what biblical teaching on worship takes some finesse, since Scripture nowhere presents us with, for example, a complete, confessedly normative “order of service.” But there are some commands in the New Testament which are pretty plainly binding on all churches. That the churches at Ephesus and Colossae were both commanded to sing (Eph 5:18–19, Col. 3:16), and the Corinthian church is referred to as singing (1 Cor. 14:26), suggests that all churches are supposed to sing. That Paul commanded Timothy to read and preach Scripture in a letter designed to instruct Timothy about how the church is to conduct itself (1 Tim. 3:15, 4:14) suggests that reading and preaching Scripture are God’s will not just for that one church, but for every church.
On the other hand, some commands, like “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16), seem to express a universal principle (“Welcome one another in Christian love”) in a form that may not be culturally universal.
Further, some contextual commands may have broader force, like Paul telling the Corinthians to lay aside money on the first day of the week. That was for a specific offering to the saints in Jerusalem, but all churches are commanded to support their teachers financially (Gal. 6:6), so giving may well have a place in corporate worship.
So far we’ve just dealt with the New Testament, though. What about the Old? After all, the Old Testament has plenty of commands about worship:
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! (Ps. 150:3–5)
Does this mean that, in order to be biblical, our church services need to include trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, dancing, strings, pipes, and cymbals? I’d suggest not.
Remember that the Psalms are expressions of worship under the Mosaic covenant, what some New Testament writers refer to as the “old covenant” (Heb. 8:6). Now that the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 has come, the old covenant is obsolete. We are no longer under the Mosaic law (Rom. 7:1–6; Gal. 3:23–26). Therefore, forms of worship tied up with the Mosaic era are not binding on us either. The temple was served by priests, some of whom specialized in liturgical music (1 Chr. 9:33). In fact, these are the ones we see playing the very instruments named in Psalm 150 (2 Chr. 5:12, 13; 9:11). So Psalm 150 is not providing a template for Christian worship; instead, it is invoking a specific form of old covenant worship associated with the temple and the Levitical priesthood.
That doesn’t of itself settle the question of what kind of instrumentation may be appropriate accompaniment for the church’s congregational singing. But it does mean that a simple appeal to Old Testament precedent is out of order, just as much as an appeal to Old Testament precedent can’t legitimize animal sacrifice. This is where many Christian traditions fall short of a biblical theology of worship, by selectively appealing to Old Testament precedent as if certain features of the Levitical priesthood and temple worship carry over into the new covenant age.
Certainly much in the Old Testament informs the manner of our worship. The Psalms teach us to worship with reverence and awe, joy and wonder, gratitude and gladness. But the Old Testament prescribes neither the elements nor the forms of the worship of the new covenant church.
In this sense, the New Testament provides a new constitution for God’s new covenant people, just as much of the Old Testament served as the constitution for God’s people under the old covenant. God has one plan of salvation, and one people he saves, but the way God’s people relate to him radically changed after the coming of Christ and the establishing of the new covenant.
This is why we need to employ all the tools of biblical theology—putting together the covenants, tracing the links between type and antitype, observing promise and fulfillment, delineating continuities and discontinuities—in order to arrive at a theology of gathered worship. As Christ’s new covenant people, indwelt by promised the Holy Spirit, we worship in Spirit and truth, according to the terms God himself has specified in Scripture.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
 For a biblical theology of worship that has deeply influenced my approach here, see David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
 For a basic introduction to the storyline of Scripture that uses the theme of God gathering his people as a primary lens, see Christopher Ash, Remaking a Broken World: A Fresh Look at the Bible Storyline (Milton Keynes, UK: Authentic, 2010).
 For more on the trajectory of the temple across the whole canon, see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
 For brief defenses of the regulative principle, see Jonathan Leeman, “Regulative Like Jazz,” and the first three chapters of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, ed. Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan, III (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003).