How Does The Word of Christ Dwell in Us Richly?

Leonard R. Payton
Monday, July 16th 2007
Nov/Dec 1999
Blessing and honor and glory and power,
Wisdom and riches and strength evermore
Give ye to him who our battle hath won,
Whose are the kingdom, the crown, and the throne.

Give we the glory and praise to the Lamb;
Take we the robe and the harp and the palm;
Sing we the song of the Lamb that was slain,
Dying in weakness, but rising to reign.

These words were written in 1866 by the Scottish Free Church pastor, Horatius Bonar. Bonar had begun to write poems to be sung by children while he was a young assistant to the minister in Leith. This he did because the children were lackluster in the singing of metrical psalms. In a sense, it was a kind of catechesis. Oddly enough, these texts were sung in churches of other denominations long before they were sung within the Free Church where Bonar was an ordained minister of the Word! It was as if to say, "we trust you when you stand in the pulpit, but not when you sing." To this day, one can find Bonar's texts in Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and many other hymnals. Those who heard him preach from the pulpit are long dead and gone, but Bonar still preaches, and his preaching is heard widely. Here is a man truly preaching in and out of season, causing the Word of Christ to dwell richly in all sorts of people.

One of Bonar's favorite themes was the Lamb of God and his work of redemption. Bonar was hardly unique in this. Pope Sergius I brought a now famous song into the communion liturgy about 700 A.D. which reads:

O Christ, thou Lamb of God,
that takest away the sin of the world,
have mercy upon us.

O Christ, thou Lamb of God,
that takest away the sin of the world,
have mercy upon us.

O Christ, thou Lamb of God,
that takest away the sin of the world,
grant us your peace.

Aha! So this is a Roman Catholic accretion! Well, not really. Sergius was a Greek from Syria, where Christians had long consciously exalted the Lamb of God. Beyond this, is it truly outrageous to address the Lamb of God so directly in the communion liturgy? And in what way is this wrong, even if it is a Roman Catholic accretion? After all, Jesus did say, "And this is the will of him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have everlasting life" (John 6:40). How does one behold the Lamb of God and believe and live? In some sense, we cannot divide seeing and believing.

The Family Gathering

In 1812, James Montgomery wrote:

To your temple I repair;
Lord, I love to worship there
When within the veil I meet
Christ before the mercy seat.

We are a large adopted family. Each of us from time to time (indeed often) behaves like our old family. This is called "the flesh." It is sin. It puts rifts in the bonds of affection between us and our Heavenly Father, and between us within the body of Christ. Our loving Heavenly Father is deeply grieved by this, but cannot merely sweep the sin under the rug, because he is holy. Again, Montgomery:

While I hearken to thy Law,
Fill my soul with humble awe
Till thy Gospel bring to me
Life and immortality.

Because our Father in Heaven loves us, he calls us together regularly to receive all the blessings in Christ, chief of which is the forgiveness of sins. All real life and health come from the forgiveness of sins. That is why it is listed first in the numerous blessings of Psalm 103. I think Martin Luther distilled this cleanly in his Small Catechism when he said, "for where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation." I belabor this point because it is so simple, and because of its simplicity, in our modern sophistication we are tempted to pass over the forgiveness of sins quickly in the interest of getting on to the glittering particulars of sanctification. In so doing, we gradually and unintentionally cut loose sanctification from its moorings, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

We need this continuous forgiveness of sins not because Christ has to die more than once. No, Christ's death on the cross is sufficient for all. Rather, we need this ongoing forgiveness of sins because we continue to sin. This is why our first order of business when God calls us together in his name is to confess our sins together and to receive absolution. Again, Montgomery:

While thy ministers proclaim
Peace and pardon in thy name,
Through their voice, by faith, may I
Hear thee speaking from the sky.

Having confessed our sins and received absolution, we have the family conversation. God speaks to us together in the preached Word, in the read revealed Word, and in "the Word of Christ dwelling richly in us," that is congregational singing (Col. 3:16). We, in turn, speak to God together in our prayers and in our singing. We even speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16).

Let me say a brief word about congregational singing as the Word. Right up front this assertion is counterintuitive. I think this is so for one of two reasons, depending on the type of congregational experience. First, sometimes we can't take congregational singing seriously as the Word because what is being sung is so thin and fatuous. It feels good, and we want to keep it right there. On the other side of the ledger, we can't take congregational singing seriously as the Word because we do so little of it in proportion to the other kinds of things that happen in the service, or in proportion to the other kinds of music we consume the other one-hundred, sixty-seven hours of the week. Now, with this in mind, would we negate the mandate of preaching merely because preachers give expositions of slogans on T-shirts? Of course not. Would we negate the mandate of the publicly read revealed Word merely because the reader wears a clown suit? Of course not. Rather, we would strive for more faithful preaching and more reverent reading. In the same way, let's restore "the word of Christ dwelling in us richly" to its place.


Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
Here drink with you ("O My Lord") the royal wine of heaven;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.

After the family conversation, we have the family meal, the Lord's Supper. It is the "communion of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor. 10:16). We eat it together. There is no more intense expression of Christian fellowship this side of heaven. We may not see it. Our senses are inadequate to the task. We may not feel it, but it is objectively so. In that moment, everything is right. We are ready to live out our lives together in the fellowship that occurs outside of and beyond the service.

Again Bonar:

I lay my sins on Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God;
He bears them all and frees us from the accursed load.
I bring my guilt to Jesus to wash my crimson stains
Clean in his blood most precious till not a spot remains.

The Centrality of God's Action

I often hear gathered worship described as "man- centered," a pejorative appellation, or "God-centered," an approbation. Of course, the former label is a no-brainer. We use it precisely because of its extravagant ad hominem value. But what about the latter label? What about statements like, "At X Church, we are God-centered; our services are dignified and centered around the glory of God. We exalt God at X Church?" Isn't this all really a bit like "I have decided to follow Jesus?"

My youngest son is five years old. He is beginning to write by copying the words of "Go Dogs, Go!" A few days ago, he gave me a scroll of his writing, very proud of the accomplishment. He gave it to me because he wanted to give me a present, and in that spirit, I received it with great delight. But, truth be told, he didn't understand a word he had written, the writing was difficult to read, and there were food stains on the paper. I could have done a much better job on my own had I decided that a scroll extracted from "Go Dogs, Go!" was necessary to my existence. Do I need anything from my five year old? No. Do I want anything from him? Of course I do. I want his love and affection.

It is just like this when our Heavenly Father draws his family together. He gives us the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in Christ. We give him the affection of much-loved children. To be honest then: This family gathering is man-centered, but on God's terms. God meets our needs in gathered worship as he defines them.

Asaph, speaking the Word of the Lord, said: "Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me" (Psalm 50:15). What day is the day of trouble? Every day that we sin. We need to keep a sense of proportion in gathered worship and receive God's gifts to us in Word and Sacrament with one simple word: Thanks. Montgomery once more:

From Thy house when I return,
May my heart within me burn,
And at evening let me say,
I have walked with God today….

Or perhaps, "I have beheld the Lamb of God today…."

Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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