In this month’s Banner of Truth Magazine, Sinclair Ferguson explains the balance we need in our lives between the pursuit of godliness and the pursuit of God. He says:
When we are concerned about spiritual experience, there is always a danger that the pursuit of it will become a thing on its own, set loose from its anchor and moorings in the glory of God himself. When that happens we may indeed become more interested in our personal godliness than in God. While the Puritans were deeply concerned about personal experience, they were convinced that it flows from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, from the love of God the Father, and from fellowship or communion with the Holy Spirit. They were God-centred in this sense, not experience-centred. Their vision was always upwards to the glory of God. (“The Puritans: Can they Teach us Anything Today?”, Banner of Truth Magazine 543 (Dec 2008): 10. Online: part 1, part 2)
It reminded me of a recent conversation I had in similar vein about the balance between attendance to public worship and personal experience or that worship. I was of the opinion that balance was not to be achieved by being right in the middle, but that we needed to be on the side that embraced regular attendance at the public worship of one’s own local congregation, however it was styled, rather than the side of seeking an ‘exalted experience’ of God. My friend considered experience more important, since he considered the greater danger was in dry and perfunctory worship.
I know that it is equally possible to go to excess in either experiential worship, or in a legalistic doctrinal emphasis that is devoid of the Spirit. But it does make all the difference where one stands, on which foundation one is depending.
The foundation of experience is insufficient to bear the weight of the tension that is involved in becoming godly without losing sight of the Triune God. There is a serious danger that God will become little more than a buddy or best mate should we anchor on the side of experience. However intimate our relationship with God, he must never be reduced that that level. Is it not less likely that ‘depth’ of experience will result in greater intimacy with God?
The Word of God gives a sure and solid foundation, and that is where we ought to moor ourselves. Worship that starts from the Word of God, as it is read, sung, prayed and preached, is the best foundation. That Word is God’s sure revelation of himself. Attending to preaching that glorifies God and magnifies Christ is the vital thing, however ‘poor’ it may otherwise be.
‘Poor’ worship, I have found, usually to be a euphemism for singing in a style other than contemporary, popular music that mirrors the world. It usually takes no account of prayer, Scripture reading, and preaching. What thought is given to preaching invariably concentrates on style and delivery, rather than subject. It may be termed dry, irrelevant, or even boring. I wonder if such characterisations are not more of a commentary on ourselves when we say such things. Do we fail to appreciate the majestic God who is the subject of the sermon? (I speak of honest, biblical, God-centred, Christ-exalting preaching.)
Is it not that we have been anchored too long in experience? We do not come prepared, expecting to worship God corporately through the whole of the service, but come unprepared, merely expecting a personal experience that will pick up us, and hopefully set us up for another week. We come as takers, not givers. We do not receive what we want because we expect entirely the wrong thing. We expect to enjoy the worship, that is, we expect to enjoy ourselves. And if we feel we enjoy ourselves then we will perhaps give God the credit, when we ought to come to give God the glory, and enjoy him.
I, for one, want to anchor on the side of God’s glory, and avail of the ordinary means that he has appointed for my godliness. Those means may be unspectacular, but I trust in his hands they will be glorious and glorifying.