WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Membership Vows (part 1)

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Church Membership Vows (part 1)

Why do new members take public vows during the worship service? What is the meaning of this practice? To answer these questions, we need to explore the significance of church membership itself. Church mem­ber­ship is a for­mal, covenan­tal rela­tion­ship between a fam­ily or indi­vid­ual and a true, local man­i­fes­ta­tion of Christ’s vis­i­ble church. It begins with the under­stand­ing that Christ not only pos­sesses an invis­i­ble church, that is, all the elect peo­ple of God whose names are writ­ten in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21.27), but has also estab­lished a vis­i­ble church on earth (Matt 28.18–20).

God first insti­tuted this vis­i­ble church imme­di­ately after the fall when he sep­a­rated the seed of the woman from the seed of the ser­pent and estab­lished them as a peo­ple united in his promise of sal­va­tion (Gen 3.15). He fur­ther estab­lished his com­mu­nity when he made his covenant with the patri­arch Abra­ham and his off­spring (Gen 12, 15, 17) and ful­filled his promises, first in the nation Israel and the promised land of Canaan, but more fully in the per­son and work of Jesus Christ. Through­out the unfold­ing drama of redemp­tive his­tory, from the days of Abra­ham to Christ, God kept his peo­ple as a vis­i­ble covenant com­mu­nity marked by the covenan­tal sign and seal of circumcision.

With the com­ple­tion of Christ’s earthly min­istry and the inau­gu­ra­tion of the new covenant, how­ever, God no longer con­fined his vis­i­ble church to one peo­ple (national Israel) and one place (Pales­tine). Hav­ing sat­is­fied the Law of Moses in his life, death, and res­ur­rec­tion, Christ com­mis­sioned his apos­tles to preach the Gospel, bap­tize, admin­is­ter the Lord’s
Sup­per, and make dis­ci­ples throughout the world. As the book of Acts reveals, the apos­tles ful­filled this com­mis­sion by plant­ing churches (Acts 2.42). Begin­ning in Jerusalem, Christ added daily to his church those who were being saved (Acts 2.41, 47; 4.4). The vis­i­ble, covenant com­mu­nity became a “cho­sen race, a royal priest­hood, a holy nation, a peo­ple for his own pos­ses­sion” (1 Pet 2.9a; cf. Ex 19.6) made up of peo­ple ran­somed “from every tribe and lan­guage and peo­ple and nation” (Rev 5.9b).

After the apos­tles died, though, the vis­i­ble church did not cease to exist. The New
Tes­ta­ment tells us that Christ intended his vis­i­ble church to con­tinue until the end of the age. He ordained the office of pas­tor to feed his flock with the preach­ing of the Gospel so they will be healthy and grow to matu­rity (Rom 10.14–17; Eph 4.11–16; 2 Tim 4.1–5; Titus 1.5–9). He has sup­plied his church with sacra­ments, which the Holy Spirit uses to nour­ish our faith (1 Cor 10.16; 11.17–34; cf. John 6.41–58). He gave the office of elder so that we will have guardians over our souls and gov­er­nors to keep­ order (Acts 14.23; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.1–7; 5.17; Heb 13.17; 1 Pet 5.1–4). He main­tains the purity and peace of his church through the exer­cise of dis­ci­pline (Mt 18.15–20; 1 Cor 5; 2 Thes 3.6, 14–15; Titus 1.10–14; 3.9–11). He has pro­vided the office of dea­con to ensure care for the poor and needy in the con­gre­ga­tion (Acts 6.1–7; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.8–13; 5.3–15). He pours out gifts upon his church so that each believer uses his or her gifts for the ben­e­fit of oth­ers (Rom 12.3–8; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4.15–16). The New Tes­ta­ment reveals a church estab­lished by Christ that is an observ­able, iden­ti­fi­able soci­ety made up of real flesh and blood mem­bers and real orga­ni­za­tion and structure.

Church mem­ber­ship, there­fore, is about belong­ing to this vis­i­ble, iden­ti­fi­able com­mu­nity as it is man­i­fested in the local con­gre­ga­tion. The church is not a store fre­quented by loyal
cus­tomers. It is not a vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tion of indi­vid­u­als loosely united by con­sumer
pref­er­ences or cul­tural prac­tices. Rather, the church is the peo­ple who belong to Christ, and the place where Christ meets them through the means he has ordained.

When a fam­ily or an indi­vid­ual pur­sues for­mal church mem­ber­ship, they are say­ing, “We belong to Christ and his body.” They and their chil­dren pass through the waters of bap­tism, acknowl­edg­ing that they are part of some­thing much larger than their own pri­vate, spir­i­tual expe­ri­ence. They rec­og­nize that Christ has set them as liv­ing stones in his one tem­ple (Eph 4.19–22; 1 Pet 2.4–5) and gath­ered them as sheep in his one flock (John 10.1–29; Acts 20.28). They take pub­lic vows in the holy assem­bly of God’s peo­ple in which they pro­fess their faith in Christ and their will­ing­ness to sub­mit to his Lord­ship and the gov­ern­ment of his church. Like­wise, the con­gre­ga­tion receives them and acknowl­edges their oblig­a­tion to them as fel­low mem­bers of God’s family.

~ Pastor Brown


Every year on Easter Sunday, we add a short responsive greeting to our liturgy: the pastor exclaims, “Christ is risen!” The congregation then responds with the words, “He is risen indeed!” Why do we say these words? From where did this practice come?

We call this antiphonal exclamation the Paschal Greeting or the Easter Acclamation. It has been a custom in Easter liturgies since the early church, especially in the east. In addition to their use in the liturgy, these words are often used among individual Christians when they greet each other on Easter Sunday. In some cultures, this is accompanied by the exchange of three kisses on alternate cheeks. (I think we will refrain from that part of the tradition at Christ URC.)

We should not dismiss these words as a useless, empty tradition. The Paschal Greeting is biblical. It is based on passages from the gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection when angels reported the good news to the disciples – and the disciples to one another – that Christ had risen (see Matthew 28.6-7; Mark 16.6; Luke 24.6, 34). The glorious words, “He is risen indeed!” is the best news we can hear in this life. They remind us that Christ’s suffering and death on the cross was not in vain, but in fact accomplished our redemption. “Christ is risen!” is an exclamation of his victory over Satan, death, and hell. For centuries, Christians have exchanged these joyful words on the annual celebration of our Lord’s resurrection.

Today is Easter Sunday. As we worship together as a congregation, let’s say with joy in our hearts and as saints have done for centuries, “He is risen indeed!” As we greet one another today, let’s bless one another with the good news, saying, “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!”

~ Pastor Brown


Today is Palm Sunday, that Sunday before Easter when we remember our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem to die on the cross for our sins. Historically, much of the Christian church has observed this day as the beginning of “Passion Week,” which includes Maundy Thursday (commemorating the day when Christ instituted Holy Communion), Good Friday (when Christ died on the cross), and culminates in Easter Sunday.

These days, along with other days such as Christmas, Ascension Day, and Pentecost, are part of what we call the church calendar or liturgical year. Why do we observe this seasonal schedule? Where did it come from, and what benefit does it have for the believer?

The Church Calendar is Historical

It is an indisputable fact that the early church observed certain days of the year in commemoration of our Lord’s earthly ministry. For example, we know from an extant Easter sermon preached by Melito (d.180), the bishop of the church at Sardis, that Easter has been celebrated since at least the 2nd century. The writings of John Chrysostom (c.349-407), the bishop of Constantinople, reveal that, in addition to Easter, the church celebrated Christmas, Theophany (Christ’s birth), Ascension, and Pentecost as festive days of worship and feasting. The collected sermons of Augustine (395-430), the bishop of Hippo, include a whole series on the liturgical year. We find more evidence of the church calendar in the early church in the writings of fathers such as Irenaeus (130-202), Eusebius (260-339), and Jerome (c.347-420).

During the Middle Ages (the period between the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the Renaissance in the 15th century), the number of feast days in the liturgical year swelled to an all-time high. Many of these holy days were not in commemoration of Christ’s earthly ministry, but in honor of saints. The Roman Church required people to attend Mass on all of these days and do penance in order to gain merit with God. The church calendar became a checklist for the believer to accomplish if he hoped to have salvation.

During the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers sought to reform worship and the liturgical year according to Scripture. They emphasized the importance of the Lord’s Day as the primary Christian holiday. This day, above all others, is the day for the church’s worship and community life. Nevertheless, the early Reformers did not disparage or discard everything in the church calendar. The liturgies of the Palatinate (the region of the Holy Roman Empire in which the Heidelberg Catechism was published in 1563), Strasbourg (where the reformer Martin Bucer labored), and those prescribed by the Synod of Dort included Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost.

Instead of observing these days as a superstitious and legalistic checklist for the Christian to accomplish for his salvation (see Gal 4.8-11), the reformers saw them as an opportunity to celebrate the finished work of Christ and remember what he accomplished in our place. Although many English Puritans of the 17th century sought to remove the entire liturgical year from the church’s worship, the early Reformers saw it as a matter of Christian liberty (Rom 14.5; Col 2.16) and recognized its usefulness for our instruction and increase in godliness.

The Church Calendar is Helpful

The liturgical year has several benefits. First, it helps us remember the events of Christ’s ministry and reflect on his most important acts that save us: his Incarnation (Christmas), his obedience (Lent and Palm Sunday), his death of atonement (Good Friday), his resurrection (Easter), his ascension (Ascension Day), and his sending of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Celebrating these days reminds us that our faith is in an historical Person who accomplished our salvation through real historical events.

Secondly, the liturgical year provides us with an annual rhythm that help us mark time as we look forward to the return of our Lord and the consummation of his kingdom. The festive days of the church calendar are like signposts for the universal church as we make our way to our heavenly homeland.

Finally, the liturgical year is evangelistic. Western culture is rapidly becoming more pagan. Basic knowledge of the Bible is no longer a norm in society. Christianity is moving into cultural exile. All of this makes the church calendar worth observing. For Christians to make worship a top priority on holidays such Christmas and Easter, as well as attending church on weekdays like Good Friday and Ascension Day, speaks volumes to a dark and dying world. It shows that we belong to Christ and not to this present evil age. Moreover, Christmas and Easter can often be times when unbelieving family members or friends are more open to attending church and hearing the gospel.

Since God has given us the freedom to observe these days with reverence and joy, let us keep the feast as we look continually to the finished work of Christ and anticipate his return.

~ Pastor Brown

Why We Do What We Do: Vespers (the evening worship service)

“Why do you go to church twice on Sunday? Isn’t once enough?” Here are some reasons why the Reformed tradition has maintained the historic practice of morning and evening worship:

1. Evening Worship is Rooted in Scripture

The pattern of “morning and evening” is found throughout Scripture. We see this in God’s order of creation. He structured time for humans in terms of mornings and evenings (Gen 1-2). This pattern was also evident in old covenant worship as God commanded the daily offerings in the tabernacle to be made once in the morning and again at twilight (Num 28.1-10; cf. Ex 29.38-39). This is why the psalmist declares in Psalm 92 (a psalm for the Sabbath), “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night” (vv.1-2; cf. Ps 134.1). Moreover, the New Testament reveals that some new covenant worship services took place in the evening of the first day of the week (see Acts 20.7).

2. Evening Worship More Easily Helps us to Sanctify the Lord’s Day

A practical benefit of morning and evening worship is that it provides an excellent structure to help families sanctify the Lord’s Day. The two worship services become like bookends on the Sabbath, allowing the Christian to more easily keep the day holy as we are commanded, rather than merely sanctifying a couple of hours in the morning. Since the Lord’s Day is a mark of God’s covenant community that sets them apart as holy and reminds them that they are pilgrims on the way to the eternal Sabbath, evening worship provides a beautiful rhythm for the Lord’s Day. For centuries, millions of Christians have found the interval between the morning and evening worship services the perfect time for refreshment, prayer, and acts of mercy. Freed up from all the craziness of the week, Christians are able to enjoy a whole day of worship and rest.

3. Evening Worship, like Morning Worship, is the Means of Grace

If God nourishes our faith by the preaching of the gospel, why wouldn’t we want to hear the gospel preached more than once on Sunday? Since “faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10.17) and it is the “the preaching of Jesus Christ” that strengthens us (Rom 16.25), we must realize that the evening worship service provides another opportunity for our faith to be built up and our knowledge of Christ to grow. It provides a broader scope of preaching on the whole counsel of God, allowing the pastor to take his congregation through more of Scripture than only one service would allow.

4. Evening Worship Gives us Continuity with the Historic Christian Church

As we look at the history of the church, we see that morning and evening worship on the Lord’s Day was the norm. In the early fourth century, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea described what he understood to be the universal practice of the church:

"For it is surely no small sign of God’s power that throughout the whole world in the churches of God at the morning rising of the sun and at the evening hours, hymns, praises, and truly divine delights are offered to God. God’s delights are indeed the hymns sent up everywhere on earth in his Church at the times of morning and evening."

During the Middle Ages, morning worship became known as “lauds” and evening worship “vespers.” Attending both lauds and vespers was standard practice for Christians. At the time of the Reformation, this practice continued as evidenced in the liturgies of the Reformed churches in the sixteenth century. So important was this second service to the life of the Reformed churches, that when it was threatened by the protests of the Remonstrants (Arminians), the matter was brought to the Synod of Dort (1618-19). The overwhelming testimony by the Synod delegates from countries all over Europe was that the second service was something to be guarded and cherished. This practice has continued to be a principal part of Reformed worship. It should be understood that Protestant churches that have dropped the evening worship service altogether have departed from what has historically been a normal practice of Christ’s church.

I encourage you to commit to the practice of morning and evening worship. It provides us with a beautiful rhythm of worship each Lord’s Day.

~ Pastor Brown


WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: The Declaration of Pardon

“If you have confessed your sins to God and you trust in the finished work of Christ for your salvation, then you can be comforted and assured as I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of his Word that your sins are forgiven and you are not under the condemnation of God’s law.”

The declaration of pardon or “absolution” is a public announcement to the congregation that God has forgiven the sins of all those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. It is an important part of our liturgy in the Divine Service. After hearing the law and confessing our sins to God, we need the assurance that God forgives us and receives us in Christ. This is what the absolution does. Acting on behalf of the Lord he serves, the minister of the Word raises his hand in an oath-taking posture and pronounces God’s promise that all those who confess their sins and put their trust in Christ are absolved. He swears an oath upon the basis of God’s Word and covenant that as surely as he declares the forgiveness of sins to those who put their trust in Christ, so truly has God forgiven them.

The minister does not possess in himself the power to forgive sins, but Christ does, and he has called and sent his ministers to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. The minister acts on the authority of God’s Word and in the name of Jesus Christ, opening the gate of heaven with the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16.18-19; John 20.21-23). Christ has entrusted the keys of his kingdom to ministers of his Word who proclaim law and gospel (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 84) and to elders who exercise church discipline (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 85). In contrast to the medieval church, which abused this authority and tyrannized God’s people, the Reformers saw the use of the keys of the kingdom as a service rendered in the public means of grace. The power is in the Word, and that Word must be proclaimed.

This is why the Reformers kept the absolution in their liturgies. For example, Martin Bucer used the following words in the declaration of pardon: “Let everyone, with St. Paul, truly believe in Christ. Thus, in his name, I proclaim unto you the forgiveness of all your sins, and declare to you to be loosed of them on earth, that you may be loosed of them in heaven, in eternity. Amen.” (1539 Strasbourg Liturgy)

Calvin’s was very similar: “Let each one of you truly acknowledge that he is a sinner, humbling himself before God and believe that the heavenly Father will be gracious unto him in Jesus Christ. To all those that repent in this way, and look to Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare that the absolution of sins is affected in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” (1542 Form of Church Prayers)

In the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, we find these words: “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which desireth not the death of the sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, and hath given power and commandment to his ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins: he pardoneth and absolveth all them which truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy gospel. Wherefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him, which we do at this present, and that the rest of our life hereafter, may be pure and holy: so that at the last day we may come to his eternal joy: through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The declaration of pardon has had an important place in Reformed liturgies over the centuries. We look forward to this great announcement every Lord’s Day. As Calvin said, “Christ intended to assure his followers of the salvation promised to them in the Gospel, that they might expect it as firmly as if he were himself to descend from heaven to bear testimony concerning it…In a word, it is a wonderful consolation to devout minds to know that the message of salvation brought to them by a poor mortal man is ratified before God.”

May you be comforted by the gospel every week as the forgiveness of all your sins is declared to you in the name of Jesus Christ!

~ Pastor Brown