Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Nomology: Lesson 4a – The Elements of Regulated Worship Part 1
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2000, 2011, 2013
Westminster Confession of Faith XXI (continued)
The Elements of Worship
The Call to Worship
Prayer (including a discussion of praying for “unpardonable sin”)
The next part of this lesson will cover:
The Reading and Preaching of God’s Word
The Singing of Psalms
Due Administration and Receiving of the Sacraments
Other Elements of Proper Worship
Religious Oaths and Vows
Confessions of Faith
Solemn Fastings and Thanksgivings
The Gathering of God’s Tithe and Our Offerings
The Places of Worship
The Elements of Worship
Westminster Confession of Faith 21:3-5
III. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.
IV. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.
V. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.
Having established that God alone may set the proper methods and content of our worship, we must go on to ask the obvious question, “What has God prescribed to us for his worship?”
Worship is the response of a believer to the revealed glory of God. There is a sense in which all of the Christian life is a walk of worship. When we behold the display of his majesty in the heavens and the earth, as we perceive his hand of providence governing all that takes place, and as we become aware of his rich blessings to our body and soul we are compelled to give him thankful praise. Since we love him supremely, we wish to be sure that our praise is given in ways that truly honor him. Therefore everything we do to honor God must be regulated according to what God has prescribed for us in his word.
Along with our continual attitude of worship, there is also a special worship that is connected with the calling together of the body of believers under the oversight of Elders. Some elements of worship are limited by God’s prescription to this special time of convocation. For example, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is only to be done under the oversight of ordained Elders in the presence of the church in communion with Christ as a congregation.
A special convocation of the body of Christ in worship is to be called on every Sabbath day, and may be called at other times by the shepherds of the flock. It is a coming apart from the usual walk we have with the Lord to specially turn our thoughts to God’s glory as a body of believers. The time of convocational worship is bounded by a formal call marking its beginning and a benedictory pronouncement marking its end. The biblical grounds for this will become clear when we look at those particular elements.
The uniting of a congregation in worship is the most visible and public activity of any church. If wrongly ordered the time of worship can be tiresome, meaningless, and empty. Or it can be mystifying, confusing, and hypocritical. The enemy of our souls would have us to be inattentive in worship with wandering minds, sleepy bodies, or deceived by emotional substitutes.
Psalm 95 gives a good overview of how a believer ought to approach this special time of gathering.
1 O come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.
The presence of the Lord is spoken of here as something into which we come in worship. These first two verses constitute a call to come apart to rejoice in consideration of the wonder and work of our Lord. Of course we know from Scripture that God is present everywhere. Psalm 139:7-10 is but one example of the many texts that makes this absolutely clear. All of God is everywhere all the time. Therefore the localized mentions of his presence in worship must not mean that he is ever absent from, or less present in, places outside of worship. The being of God is not at question here. He fills all space absolutely and eternally.
Yet there is clearly something special about the presence of God in worship. In Exodus 25:8 God said that a sanctuary should be made for him that he may dwell among them. The Tabernacle was called God’s dwelling place, the tent of meeting where God met with his people as they assembled as a covenant community. It was also called the Holy Place where the Lord’s holiness was specially shown. The Tabernacle and then the Temple contained the ark which was thought of as a manifestation of God’s throne (Jeremiah 3:16-17), the footstool of God (1 Chronicles 28:2 Psalm 132:7), and the dwelling place of God (1 Chronicles 13:6, Exodus 25:22).
When the Tabernacle was dedicated (Exodus 40:34-38), and later the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-13), God supernaturally displayed his presence by the settling of the cloud of glory over the place of worship.
The mountain where God showed his presence in the place of worship is said to be the place where God desired to make his abode (Psalm 68:16). Many of the Psalms speak of entering into God’s presence in worship. In the New Testament, Jesus spoke specially of the presence of God being among the officers of the church as they made the difficult decision of discipline in putting a rebelling member out of communion with the church (Matthew 18:20).
In the Book of the Revelation, God’s presence is shown to be in heaven. But certainly this does not mean that at those moments he is absent from other places in his creation.
These passages that speak of God’s presence locally are talking about places where there is a special manifestation of God’s glory or attributes. It is that manifestation into which we enter, not the presence of his essence which is everywhere present. God sometimes shows something about himself in a greater than usual way in particular places.
In called worship God manifests himself in the spiritual worship of the body of Christ united in humble gratitude for his mercies and grace.
Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 presents an awesome warning for us all as we dare to enter into the place of worship, into the house of the Lord.
“Guard your steps as you go to the house of God, and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.”
Psalm 95:3-5 continues to describe the focus of special called worship.
“For the LORD is a great God, And a great King above all gods, In whose hand are the depths of the earth; The peaks of the mountains are His also. The sea is His, for it was He who made it; And His hands formed the dry land.”
Verses three through five give the general reason why all creatures are obligated to come apart to worship God. He is the Lord of all that is, over all beings and things. His Lordship emerges from his greatness as Sovereign Creator who has made everything to reveal his glory. This is the foundation of the Creation Sabbath declared as ever binding upon mankind in the opening chapters of Genesis, and which is summarized in the Fourth Commandment. The principle of worship on one special day after six days of labor is a creation ordinance which is as eternal as the universe. It is commemorative of the completion of the work of creation.
“Come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker. For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. …”
Verses six and seven remind us of the humility and subjection that ought to characterize our special times of worship. Since God made all things, his intentions define what is right for all that he made. Therefore we as sinners, inheritors of the corruption and guilt of Adam, perpetrators of things contrary to God’s glory, ought to approach our Creator as those who have no right to blessings and every right to damnation if it was not for the atonement of Jesus Christ on our behalf. We kneel before him bowing our heads, exposing our necks to the wrath of God, knowing that by grace wrath fell upon God the Son in our place. We therefore come as his covenant people, adopted into his family by unmerited favor.
“… Today, if you would hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, As in the day of Massah in the wilderness; ‘When your fathers tested Me, They tried Me, though they had seen My work. For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart, And they do not know My ways. Therefore I swore in My anger, Truly they shall not enter into My rest.’ “
The last part of the Psalm from the end of verse seven through verse eleven presents a warning. We ought not to fail in our proper worship of God as did the ancient fathers at Meribah when they grumbled at what they did not understand. They had an idea in their hearts which did not conform with what was in the heart of God. They were a people who had tragically erred. Our own imaginations should never be our guide in approaching God. We must come into his special presence only when guided by his word.
The Call to Worship
To show that the time of convocation is a special entry into the presence of God it is marked by a special calling together of the body of Christ constituting it as a worshiping congregation, and separating the people’s thoughts from the usual concerns of life. This is done under the oversight of the Elders for the humble honoring of God for his revealed glories.
The call to worship is issued first by God who calls his people to gather to honor him. It is secondarily the call of the Shepherds of the people, the Elders of the church. It is their responsibility to communicate God’s call at a time appropriate according to the principles laid out in the Scriptures. There is a tertiary sense in which the people also call upon God to specially manifest his glory in their midst as he has promised by covenant.
It is therefore proper to divide the elements of worship into two main categories. Some elements are God speaking to the people by his word. Other elements are the people responding to God’s revealed glory and truth. Therefore the Call to Worship is often divided into parts that reflect this two-fold division. This maintains the covenant nature of worship in that it is a union of the Sovereign King with his subjects who come to show allegiance and honor to him through the atonement he has provided, and according to the specifications set forth in God’s word.
We have already seen that God calls us to come together and to worship him. This was symbolized formally in the calling of the people to the Tabernacle and Temple at the times of the offerings and prayers presented by the Priests on their behalf and according to God’s liturgy. The center of the Old Testament worship was the offerings and rituals which prefigured the work of Christ for the sins of his people. An example of this call to a special time of convocation is seen in Leviticus 23:2-3 where God said,
“Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, ‘The LORD’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations– My appointed times are these: For six days work may be done; but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the LORD in all your dwellings.’ “
In fulfillment of those promises in Jesus, New Testament worship continues to be centered upon the atonement and the promises of God relating to it. The calling together of the covenant people to worship is upheld by the example of Jesus and his Apostles who gathered regularly to enter into Sabbath worship with God’s people as they assembled both at the Temple (prior to the cross), and the Apostles at the synagogues (after the cross).
The implementing of this principle at the opening of worship has been done in various ways by the churches. The prescriptive regulative principle does not give us a fully worded liturgical form though God certainly could have included that in his word if it there was only one way of implementation. But this principle does show us that worship must be marked out from that which is not convocational worship so that those participating understand the distinction.
The Call to Worship usually begins with a direct quote from Scripture. Sometimes it is divided into two separate parts called the Votum and the Salutation.
The Votum is a call to God from the people, or an Elder as their representative, indicating that they have gathered for worship as a congregation. A commonly used portion of Scripture is the first part of Psalm 18. Often they used only verse 2, and sometimes verses 3-5.
1 I will love thee, O LORD, my strength.
2 The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.
3 I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies.
4 The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid.
5 The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me.
Often Psalm 124:8 was used.
Psalm 124:8 Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
The Salutation is the word of the Lord to his people in answer to their call to him. It is a blessing of promise showing the mercy and confidence of blessing that draws us into humble praise. Since this is a word from God, it is always a direct quote from Scripture. Commonly used Salutations are …
1 Corinthians 1:3, “Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Revelation 1:4-5, “… Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,”
Sometimes these elements are combined into a more general Call to Worship. This is usually a reading of a portion of Scripture most often from the Psalms declaring God’s glory and mercy. It is often followed by a prayer of Invocation whereby the special presence of God is called upon by the people or their representative in the Elder leading worship. Among the texts used are Psalm 92:1-2, 95:1-2, 100:1-2, 112:1-2.
Commonly these elements are followed by the singing of the congregation using a Psalm or Hymn that particularly declares the revealed glories of God.
It is crucial that this call of God and of his appointed Shepherds is not neglected by the people. It is a solemn duty before the Lord to be present, prepared and attentive in Sunday worship. We are warned in Hebrews 10:25, “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.”
The first element of worship listed in this section of the Westminster Confession is Prayer. This element is detailed more than any other. The definition given to question 98 in the Shorter Catechism is important to keep in mind:
“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”
Since prayer in the worship context continues to be the speaking of the people to God, it must be ordered in a way that is acceptable to him who is to receive it.
Central in prayers of worship is the motive of gratitude: thanksgiving for the wonders of Creation, the works of providence, and the wonders of redemption. These are what stir our hearts to humble expressions of worshipful prayer.
God is made known generally to all people by the works of creation and providence. His moral holiness is impressed upon the conscience of everyone. This obligates all to offer thankful prayers to him. Therefore it is not only the believer, but also the lost who have this duty.
Fallen souls may abhor the obedience of prayer, or dare to approach God without coming through the only Mediator, Jesus Christ. But moral inability does not excuse a person from moral responsibility. Such an exempting principle is not taught anywhere in God’s word. Therefore the failure of the unregenerate to pray acceptably condemns them all the more.
The confession summarizes the conditions which make prayer acceptable to God.
Acceptable prayers must be offered in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ. This should not be taken in a purely outward sense of tagging his name onto our prayers. To pray “in the name of Jesus Christ” is to approach God as one who is identified as redeemed by Christ’s righteousness. There is only one mediator between God and man, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). [see syllabus notes on WCF VIII]
The Bible only promises that the prayers of a righteous man, one redeemed in Christ, are effectual (James 5:16). There is no promise that the prayers of the unregenerate are used by God as means in accomplishing his holy decrees.
John 14:6, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.’ ”
Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”
Prayer must be offered by the help of the Holy Spirit. Since the Spirit dwells within every believer as his helper and comforter, we ought to rely upon this aspect of prayer whenever we approach the Throne of Grace.
Acceptable prayer must be according to God’s will. We have addressed the nature of God’s will in our study of his decrees. [see this syllabus on Theology Proper, lessons 4 and 7 on WCF chapters 3 and 5.]
We must limit the confident expectations of our prayers to things God has promised to those who pray. When we pray for matters the end of which is not directly revealed by God, we must condition our request by the submission of our heart to whatever is the secret will of God (Deuteronomy 29:29).
For example, it would always be right to pray that God would grant peace and comfort to his children as they suffer. But it would not be right to demand of God that he would heal a particular person or deliver him from facing death. While we may intercede for God’s powerful healing for the sick, or for his grace to fall upon particular ones to regenerate them, there must always be the understanding, spoken or not, that it may not be in God’s perfect plan to do so. Similarly we may always pray that guilt would be punished and that the innocence protected. But it would require special revelation to pray that God’s wrath would be turned in a particular temporal judgment upon one individual, or that a particular calamity would not befall a particular person.
Such demands would be wicked. It would be the same as the creature demanding of the Creator to change his eternal and perfect decrees. This is nothing less than making ourselves to be God and demeaning the true God as if he was a mere servant whose plan is inferior to that which we imagine to be superior. We follow the teaching of our Lord who prayed, “Thy will be done” (Matthew 26:42).
Concerning the part that our prayers play in the unfolding of God’s plan, we must keep in mind that since God is unchanging and all powerful, we can be thankfully confident that whatever he has decreed can not be changed. If nothing changes that God has known for all eternity, then what can our prayers really accomplish? Are they just empty exercises done only for our psychological benefit? On the other hand, if our prayers could actually change what the Creator originally decreed as best, then do our prayers make us the ultimate masters over the universe?
Absolutely neither of these ideas is consistent with what the Bible teaches. There is a different answer that is far closer to the truth than these two extremes. God decrees not only the final outcome, but also all the means by which all things come to pass. One of the wonderful tools he uses in carrying out his will is the prayer of believers. The Lord does not only use the prayers of the great Apostles and Prophets, not just the prayers of Ministers, Elders and Deacons, but also those of all his children. In Romans 15:30, and in other places, the Apostle Paul asks those simple Christians to whom he addressed his letter to pray for him.
God commands us to pray, and he tells us that it matters. Rather than philosophizing about things far beyond our understanding, we should simply rejoice to be a part of the rise and fall of nations, to be agents in the victories of the gospel as it makes dramatic changes in otherwise hopeless lives, and to be participants in the wonders performed by surgeons, teachers, Pastors, and moms.
Prayers must be made with the right motive. Our intent in prayer must be the humble and reverent calling upon God with subjection to his perfect intent. It must be offered in love and with perseverance (Luke 18:1-8).
James 4:3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
Prayer must be offered in a language known by those hearing it offered. When we pray in the presence of others it is important that we pray in a manner that permits understanding. This principle is seen in Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 14. One of the problems that faced the Reformers and the framers of the Westminster Confession was the practice of the Roman church to conduct worship prayers in Latin which was not known by the masses of worshipers.
Prayer must only be made for lawful things. This is an extension of the concept of praying for that which is the will of God. The objects of our prayers are prescribed in generalities rather than in specifics. Paul instructed Timothy concerning this dynamic nature of the content of our prayers.
1 Timothy 2:1-2, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.”
This principle rules out the idea that prescriptive prayer must only be in the inspired words of Scripture. Since those in authority change with political changes and with succession of rightful leadership, believers could not obey this injunction if they only quoted inspired prayers.
Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us a perfect model for prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. He is not telling us that we must always and only use his exact wording, but that we must pray “… in this way”. The prayers of the New Testament conform to the content of this form but not always to its exact words. We do not find many New Testament prayers that begin by saying, “Our Father which is in heaven…”.
Included in the confession is the warning that prayers are to be made for all men living, but not for the dead. This was directed primarily against the common practice at that time which was endorsed by the Roman church. While a person is alive, their eternal state and moment of death are not yet revealed to us. We may pray for them, but in subjection to the secret and unchanging plan of God. Once a person dies nothing more falls upon him or us in recognizing God’s call to Christ, and the time and means of his physical death is made known. These and other such matters would cease to be proper objects of our prayers. David followed this principle in praying for his dying child in 2 Samuel 12:22-23
And he said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
The “sin unto death”
We are not to pray for those who have sinned the sin unto death. This is a sometimes confusing statement in the confession. First we must know what the sin unto death is. Then we must know when a person is not to be prayed for regarding that sin.
There are two passages of Scripture to consider. Matthew 12:31-32 speaks of sin and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. 1 John 5:16-17 speaks particularly about not praying for any one who sins the sin which is unto death.
Matthew 12:31-32 “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come.”
The Bible speaks here of a sin that is never forgiven. It presents a clear word of warning to those who would oppose the work of Jesus Christ and his church. Taken out of context it has caused undue despair and worry for the children of God. So then, what is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Can it be committed by a believer? Why is it never forgiven?
The context in Matthew 12:22-37 (also Mk 3:20-30, Lk 11:14-23; 12:10) shows that Jesus had just cast out a demon (12:22-23). The victim had been blind and deaf as well as possessed. Some Jewish leaders had accused Jesus of doing this by the power of Beelzebul (12:24).
Jesus showed that their accusation was not reasonable (12:25-29). A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. If Satan is divided against himself by casting out his own agents, then his kingdom cannot stand. But if Jesus was doing this work by the Spirit of God, then God’s Kingdom has come. Then the strong man of the house is being bound so that his house may be plundered. All three synoptic gospels put that statement here.
There are several obvious implications:
a) Jesus is working by the Spirit of God, not by Satan
b) Therefore the Kingdom of God is come
c) Therefore the strong man (Satan) is bound
d) Satan’s household (kingdom) is being plundered
e) These blasphemers are of the kingdom being destroyed.
Jesus calls them a “brood of vipers” (:34)
Jesus had said in 12:30 that those not with him are against him. That is, they who are not of his Kingdom are of Satan’s Kingdom.
Also, in 1 John 5:19 it says, “we know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one”
Jesus gave warnings about blasphemy (12:31-32). First, that all blasphemies shall be forgiven, even speaking wickedly against the Son of God. But speaking against the Holy Spirit is never forgiven. And we know who these are by their fruit, just as we identify a tree by what it produces (12:33-37). These unbelievers who were accusing Jesus had revealed their condemnation by their own words.
This is a comforting reassurance of a known promise. All sins and blasphemies shall be forgiven (12:31a). The blood of Jesus is able to satisfy for any sin of the elect.
Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”
Romans 8:33, “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?”
Romans 8:38-39, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
No repentant sinner who comes by faith in Christ is ever turned away from being restored to fellowship with God.
John 6:37, “… the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
1 John 1:9, “if we confess our sin, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
There is also here a sobering warning. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit “shall not be forgiven” (12:31b). This is not an isolated warning. The same account is recorded in the other Gospels:
Mark 3:28-29 adds that he is “guilty of an eternal sin”
Mark 3:29 says that he never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin
Luke 12:10 tells us that it shall not be forgiven him
Other biblical references also mention sins that are not forgiven. Hebrews 6:4-8 says that it is impossible to restore certain ones to repentance. The ones warned are those who had great privileges. They had a degree of enlightenment to God’s truth, they tasted of the heavenly gift, they were partakers of the Holy Ghost and the word of God and of the power of the age to come. Yet they turned and fell away. These can not be brought back to the point where they can be renewed to repentance. These were like King Saul who was gifted by the Holy Spirit to lead the people as ruler of the covenant nation. He was given the word of God by which to govern. He saw God do wonderful things. But it is likely that he was never regenerated by grace unto spiritual life.
The writer then adds, “We are persuaded better things of you” (6:9). So this is not a warning to his readers who were born again believers. It is a warning about unbelievers. They were like the Pharisees of Matthew 12 who when confronted with the work of God openly rejected its source. They attributed it to Satan, and thereby revealed their continued lostness and depravity.
Hebrews 10:26-31 contains a warning to those who “go on sinning willingly”. There remains for them, “no sacrifice for sins”. They have rejected God’s commandments, have not received God’s mercy, trampled under foot the Son of God, regarded the blood of the covenant as “unclean”, and insulted the “Spirit of Grace”. This is obviously not a description of the believer, but of the lost.
An unwarranted tension is introduced when these passages are read superficially. Our fallen nature and the influence of humanism make us assume that man is in charge of his own eternal future. This is absolutely and repeatedly contradicted in Scripture. God is alone sovereign and the cause of every sinners salvation. If it was our work, then it would not be a salvation by grace. We would have cause to boast in our better choice. Such apostates look for ways by which God’s salvation is overturned by man’s sin, and the work of Christ is overpowered by the work of Satan. But the elect cannot be torn out of the hand of the Savior. It was not their obedience that put them in his hand to begin with.
No believer ever sins the sin against the Holy Spirit. Those addressed here are the enemies of Christ. They had seen the miraculous works of the Holy Spirit by Jesus, they had heard his words and teachings but attributed them to the work of Satan. These had committed the sin against the Holy Spirit. Obviously these are not of God’s chosen people (Ephesians 1:4).
As Jesus told us in John 6:37, “all that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
This passage is not saying that such a person cannot be forgiven, but that he shall not be forgiven. Its not saying that the work of Christ was insufficient to atone for their sin. It was never intended to redeem those particular people. They show no conviction of sin, and no desire to come to God repentantly for forgiveness. Therefore there is no evidence of God’s grace at work in their lives.
Puritan scholar David Dickson describes this sin as:
“… an open willful, deliberate and malicious rejecting and opposing of Jesus Christ totally, and the way of salvation by him. The man that falls into this sin never repents nor gets grace to desire to repent, therefore it is not forgiven.”
Whatever sin is not sorrowed for and repented of is not removed by Christ. It is never promised to be removed. God’s elect may fall into the sin of blasphemy against the Son of God by ignorance, fear, or deception. But they will repent, and find mercy.
Forgiveness of sin comes to the convicted and penitent. Repentance is a primary evidence of the Spirit’s convicting work. We are told in 1 John 1:9, “if we confess our sin, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
What about those who appear to be Christ’s then turn away? Jesus warned in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” Of many he will say, “I never knew you; depart from Me” (Mt 7:23)
This is the consistent teaching of Scripture:
1 John 2:19 “they went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.”
1 John 2:3 “by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.”
Psalm 32:1-5 shows the importance of a credible and honest confession and repentance from sin.
This doctrine should not be a cause of worry among Christians. Having this concern in itself should dismiss their worries. If a person is inclined to be concerned, then it is an evidence of the Spirit’s work in his heart. Those who oppose the Spirit have no convicting work in them. They foolishly dismiss any concerns of guilt with no fear or serious consideration except selfishly regarding the consequences to them selves, not for the offense it raises before God.
Serious sins in Scripture are forgiven to penitent believers. For example: David’s sins of adultery, deceit and murder, Peter’s triple denial of Jesus and profanity on the night of the arrest, and Saul’s persecution of the church and of Christ.
Christians should be seriously concerned not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), not to resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), and not to quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). But, there is no reason for the penitent to despair.
Abraham Kuyper wrote,
“no child of God could or ever can commit this sin” … “such cruel spiritual distress may not be allowed. It is the result of a defective religious training, and still more, of … preaching which (is) culpably ignorant…. He who desecrates, despises and slanders the Spirit, who speaks in Christ, in His Word, and in His work, as tho He were the spirit of Satan, is lost in eternal darkness.”
1 John 5:16-17, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.”
John is drawing a very clear distinction in this verse. He speaks of sins which are unto death and sins which are not. The obvious context shows that John means spiritual death as opposed to physical death. In physical death the soul and body are separated. In spiritual death the person is separated from the eternal blessings of God due to moral guilt which is not paid for by Jesus Christ. Clearly those who sin resulting in spiritual death are those who are not among the elect. All the sins of the elect are covered by the atonement of the Savior.
Three times in this context John speaks of the sin which is not unto death. When a brother commits this kind of sin we are to ask God to forgive him. We ask this with confidence that life (blessed union with God forever) will continue to be given to him. But once John mentions the sin which is unto death. We are not to pray for those who commit such a sin. It should be kept in mind that this warning is not the focus of John’s comments. It is only a qualifying notation. The emphasis is upon the forgiveness for which we ought to pray regarding those who are our brothers in Christ.
We are never to pray for the salvation of the reprobate if we know that someone is in that category. To pray for the redemption of those not elected by grace eternally is to oppose the decree and wisdom of God. It would be to desire a cosmic injustice to be done. Forgiveness is never promised to those Christ did not die to redeem. [see notes in this syllabus on Objective Soteriology, lesson 3 from WCF 8, and Subjective Soteriology, lesson 2 from WCF 10.]
The practical side of the question is not as easy to answer. The only way we could know that a person was among the reprobate, that he was of the kingdom of Satan and not to be prayed for regarding salvation, is by observing the evidences cited in Scripture. We must not pray in the same way for those who openly deny the gospel, who show fruits in their lives of hatred of God, his work, and his moral law, and who make no attempt to repent. Even this knowledge is imperfect as to their actual eternal estate. One might have assigned Saul of Tarsus to this category in the time prior to his dramatic conversion to Christ. This is only an instruction about prayer, not one that gives us insight into the true election or reprobation of any individual. The most we can pray for is such cases is for the sinner’s salvation if it be God’s will.
Prayer is a prescribed element of worship. The nature of prayer itself makes it an act of worship. It is clear that all types of worship should include the element of prayer. Prayer is appropriate when a person worships God privately, when families gather for meals, devotions, bedtime, or throughout the day. It is also a necessary part of the corporate worship of the church. If we fail to call upon God, then we have failed to worship.
Prayer is directly mandated as a proper thing for God’s people to do
1 Timothy 2:8, “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.”
1 Thessalonians 5:17-18, “pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Ephesians 6:18-19, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, (19) and pray on my behalf …”
In that general and broad sense, many of the other elements of the worship service are prayers. We should pray as we prepare for worship. We should invoke God’s special presence among his people with humble prayer. We sing prayerful songs, recite prayerful Psalms, pray thankfully as we gather God’s tithes and our offerings, pray as we seek to understand and obey the sermon, and as we ask for God’s blessing when departing from congregational worship to resume the duties of the Sabbath day and to prepare for the work week ahead.
Prayer is shown to be a proper element of worship in the examples of Scripture. We see God honoring it in the time of the Patriarchs, in the worship form revealed by God through Moses, in the work of the Prophets of Israel, in the inspired prayers in the Psalms, in the ceremonies of dedication God commanded for the Tabernacle in the wilderness and for the Temple at Jerusalem. The example of our Lord Jesus Christ includes his prayers to the Father and his instructions in prayer to his people. The Apostles prayed as did the early church.
Acts 2:42, “And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Discussion Questions for Further Thought and Study:
1) How might prayer be abused by the church in our era?
2) Are there matters that are too trivial for our prayers?
3) Who may lead in worship prayers? Is it right to include times of group prayer in corporate worship where laypeople including women or non-communicants may verbally lead in prayer?
4) Though we are not to limit ourselves to the inspired prayers of Scripture, is it right to recite them (including the Lord’s Prayer of Matthew 6) in corporate worship?
5) What are the dangers and advantages of written liturgical prayers in the corporate worship service?
6) What should be the physical attitude of worshipers in corporate worship when prayers are offered (sitting, kneeling, standing, etc.)?
[Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.]