Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Taste of Heaven

A Taste of Heaven by R.C. Sproul, 2006. (Reformation Trust)

A Taste of Heaven is an engaging read that asks readers to contemplate and evaluate their own lives, their own churches, and to some extent the Christian community and culture at large. To those unfamiliar with R.C. Sproul's writings and ministry, A Taste of Heaven is the perfect place to start. It is both reader-friendly, and thought-provoking. (I would also suggest reading The Holiness of God as a nice introduction to Sproul.) But to those already familiar with R.C. Sproul's work let me just state that this work is one of his more approachable works. You don't need a doctorate degree to comprehend and appreciate it.

The preface clearly states Sproul's intentions regarding the purpose of A Taste of Heaven. He believes, and rightly so in my opinion, that today's churches "have made our worship services more secular than sacred, more common than uncommon, more profane than holy." (11) What he calls for is for churches to search the Scriptures for principles and instructions regarding worship instead of relying on "personal preferences, whims, or marketing strategies." (11) The remaining of the book outlines those principles Sproul has gleamed from the Bible that he feels the church should consider when designing their own liturgies or services.

In chapter one, "Forms of Worship" R.C. Sproul begins by examining some of the arguments in the worship debate of today's modern churches and denominations. Whether services should be liturgical or formal or informal, etc. But he quickly concludes that all services have some forms, and that it doesn't matter what you call it. A form is a form. And that form should have some biblical basis. But that leads Sproul to another question altogether. What place does the Old Testament have in the church? In the worship service? Does the New Testament make the Old Testament irrelevant or void? What truths about God and what truths about worship can be learned from the Old Testament? These are some of the questions, Sproul formulates in this chapter.

"The issue is not what stimulates or excites us. Though that is not an insignificant or unimportant issue, our overriding concern needs to be what is pleasing to God. The question we need to ask is this: 'If God Himself were to design worship, what would it look like?'” (14-15)

"I believe we can discern principles in the patterns of worship that God revealed from heaven to His people in the Old Testament, and that those principles can and should inform the patterns our worship follows." (19)

So the remaining chapters Sproul examines both Old and New Testament patterns of worship. In chapters two through four he mainly focuses on the Old Covenant. (He doesn't exclude the New Testament and/or the New Covenant. But he spends much time focusing on Judaism and the Hebrew nation.) He describes that worship primarily involved three aspects: praise, prayer, and sacrifice. In describing the old way of worship, Sproul makes assertions about what applies and doesn't apply to the modern church. For example, while animal sacrifice is abolished, living sacrificially is not. (See Romans 12). While the outward forms and requirements might have changed, the heart of the matter has not. God still want those who worship him to love him with all their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls.

"The all-encompassing criterion for acceptable sacrifice before God in the Old Testament was the posture and the attitude of the person making the sacrifice." (28)

"That’s what worship is—the presenting of ourselves on the altar of praise, so that what we think, what we do, and what we live is motivated by a desire to honor God." (46)

In chapter five, "Symbolism in Worship" R.C. Sproul begins to lay the foundation for the remaining chapters. In Chapters six through nine, Sproul examines the church's two foundational sacraments: baptism and communion. These chapters focus more on the New Testament instructions for worship. (But again, the Old Testament does play a role in this discussion as well.) These sacraments are widely debated between denominations. And for those seeking additional resources in understanding the arguments, I would recommend reading Doctrines that Divide by Erwin Lutzer.

Chapter ten, "The Whole Person" steps away from the previous chapters to some extent and shifts the focus away from what the Bible prescribes for the worship service and instead presents what the Bible has to say about the worshiper. (This has been covered to some degree in earlier chapters, but it now becomes a main focus.) While Sproul stresses the importance of worshiping God with your mind in truth, he also introduces the concept of how important it is to worship God with your whole being--through all of your senses--and not just your mind. This gave me something to think about, since most of the time authors, in my opinion, are saying that there is too much emphasis on feeling and not on the mind.

In chapters eleven through thirteen, Sproul focuses on how we as believers can worship God using our five senses. For example, he focuses on the visual in chapter eleven. How important it is for church structures and interiors to be visually beautiful and pleasing. He even addresses how the preacher's attire can increase/decrease the atmosphere of worship. (That is something I certainly wasn't expecting to find here.) In chapter twelve, he focuses on the sounds of worship. What should worship music sound like? He urges people to be as open-minded as they can when it comes to instruments--since Psalm 150 clearly states that God is worshiped through all sorts of musical instruments--but he also stresses the importance of lyrics. It is extremely important that all lyrics--whether in praise chorus or a traditional hymn--be doctrinally sound. So worship leaders should be discerning when it comes to selection. But traditional isn't "better" than contemporary and vice verso. Chapter thirteen addresses the remaining senses--touch, smell, and taste.

A Taste of Heaven is a readable book that offers practical insight into how to worship God.

Some churches take the position that anything that’s not prohibited in Scripture is acceptable for use in the worship of the church. Other churches have a principle that governs worship: the regulative principle. It says that only that which is authorized by Scripture is legitimate as a form of worship. (However, there’s a great debate about what it means to say that Scripture authorizes something. Must Scripture authorize something explicitly or can something be inferred by reasonable inference from the text of Scripture?) This controversy has caused many of us to practice the philosophy of the second glance, that is, to look again to the Scriptures to discern, if possible, what principles we can find there that would lead us and guide us in our worship, and at the same time restrict us from a godless type of experimentation in order to achieve a sense of the presence of God. That is what I am trying to do in this book—find Scriptural principles that should inform our worship. (129)