Stacy Oliver of Christian Book Previews interviewed R.C. Sproul in July 2006 about his latest book, A Taste of Heaven, which is the inaugural title in the Reformation Trust publishing house.
CBP: Why did you start a new publishing house?
RC: Well, it's a dream come true. The long story, which I'll try to make as short as possible, when I was in seminary, I went to a very liberal seminary. Almost all the textbooks I had to purchase were from liberal publishing houses. But to balance that, I bought a ton of books from Eerdmans Publishing Company, because in those days Eerdmans had a tremendous tradition of being faithful to the Reformed faith. That's since passed. And we've seen one publishing house after another turn to the left.
When we first started Ligonier 35 years ago, one of my dreams was that part of our outreach someday would be a small publishing company that would be completely committed to propagation of the Reformed faith. Without exception. We would not compromise that vision for marketing purposes or economic reasons. We would never publish anything or anyone who wasn't committed to the Reformed faith. No prostitution. The only way to control that is to do it yourself. I pray that Ligonier will remain faithful longer than some of the others did.
CBP: Are you thinking in terms of textbooks?
RC: We will do both, but again, the purpose of it is to propagate the Reformed faith, so whatever literature does that from the academic down to children's stories will be part of what we hope to do.
CBP: The very first title, A Taste of Heaven. Why did you choose a book on worship?
RC: We didn't choose the book to launch the imprint, it just so happened that was what I was writing on when the imprint was launched. There was no particular plan in view there, at least not in my mind. There certainly was in God's mind. That's part of His hidden counsel.
CBP: This one isn't a textbook.
RC: No, not meant to be a textbook.
CBP: You've written it for the pastor and lay person alike.
CBP: What are you hoping to instill in people with this book?
RC: Two things. One is to encourage the remnant out there that is committed to classical, biblical worship in the midst of contemporary madness. Two, if possible, to get people to think about why they worship God the way they do, and to examine their patterns of worship and to really see if they are biblical. I see a massive drift away from biblical worship in the contemporary church.
When I wrote Chosen by God many, many years ago, I thought nobody who isn't already reformed is going to read this book. So I was really thinking while I was writing, maybe this will help people who are reformed to be more able to articulate their convictions. I had the same idea here, that this might be an encouragement to people who respond intuitively, viscerally to classical worship and are not sure why. We hear from a countless number of people who come to our church who are just so burned out by the contemporary models of worship, finding it so shallow. When they come and experience a different kind of worship, they say, "This is what we've been looking for." But they didn't know why. They just sense an atmosphere of adoration and worship and reverence, that they don't find in the places they're coming from. So, this is grist for their mill at that point.
Ultimately, I'm an optimist because I'm a Calvinist. But in terms of the immediate future of the church, I'm very much a pessimist. I'll be very much surprised if anyone who currently does worship in this contemporary way will have their minds changed. But, that happened with Chosen by God, and I was just thinking last night, Wow. What if it does? Again, I do feel like a voice crying in the wilderness. I haven't submitted to the Elijah syndrome, I'm not the only one who has that concern.
But I want people who do to ask this question: First of all, what is the purpose of worship? It's not evangelism. God never designed worship for the purpose of evangelism. And in the Old Testament, the assembling of the people of God was for the purpose of worship of God the way He commanded them to worship. Now we try to design worship to grow the church, to reach the secular people. Now I do think we need to have a plan to reach the secular people, but not in corporate worship. Corporate worship is designed for the people of God. And it's designed not to accommodate the unbeliever, it's designed to please God. God is exceedingly jealous biblically, that He be worshipped the way He wants to be worshipped.
I think one of the greatest works on that subject ever written is Jeremiah Burroughs' Gospel Worship, which his whole book is a commentary on Nadab and Abihu's offerings of strange fire on the altar, where the principle that God says is "I will be regarded as holy by all who come near to Me." You look into the inner sanctum of heaven, what are the angels of heaven doing? They're praising the holiness of God. That's what at the center of their worship experience. Also, I look for what I call transferable principles. The New Testament teaches us very little about worshipping. It gives us some overarching principles such as we're to worship in spirit and in truth. We see examples of what happened in the first church in Acts where they came together and devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the Lord's Supper, and so on.
The Old Testament has a vast depository information about worship that is virtually dictated by God on how He is to be worshiped. The easy thing that happens in the New Testament age is to say that we're not living in the Old Testament, we certainly can't just replicate Old Testament worship because that would be blasphemy. So much of the sacrificial system was beyond itself to Christ, which is now fulfilled. At the same time, when you know that there was a time in redemptive history where God Himself dictated exactly how He was to be worshiped, we look for principles. Principles that are transferable. Like the one I just mentioned. That God demands that the people regard Him as holy. That doesn't change. There's nothing in the New Covenant that would abrogate that. And we worship God in the beauty of holiness.
We somehow think it's particularly spiritual or pious to be worshiping in the ugliest setting possible. You see, the first people that are filled with the Holy Spirit are the artisans that construct the vessels for the tabernacle. There is a principle of excellence, that God is to be worshiped by offering Him the best that we have. Now, obviously, if we go back into a primitive, animistic culture and convert people, and they want to sing with drums that are covered by animal skins or by beating on hollow logs and singing kumbaya, I'm sure that's pleasing to God. But there comes a time where you don't go back to the primitive when you've already gone to develop maturity in Christ you don't, once again, exalt primitive, animistic elements of worship. And that's what's happened as I see it.
CBP: Why do you think it's come to this crisis of worship?
RC: I think it's simple. There are several strands that fall with that. It goes back to 19th Century mass evangelism, with people like Dwight Moody and others. They had Aimee Semple McPherson, do you know who she was? Sister Aimee. In 1927, the three most popular American people were Charles Lindburg, Babe Ruth, and Aimee Semple McPherson. She was a female evangelist and she had this big thing in Los Angeles in the Angelus Temple, Foursquare Gospel church. She had a band! She got her start working at a ticket office on Broadway, and she saw the elements that were attractive to theater-goers in New York City, and she incorporated those self-consciously in her evangelistic outreach. When you have stadiums filled with 50,000 people, then you get singers, not choirs, you get orchestra, all of that stuff, and that's successful. But it didn't really get into the church until the Charismatic movement.
With the Charismatic movement, everything was now made more casual, less formal, less liturgical, very emotionally-laden songs, praise songs, so-called 7-11 choruses. The real explosion when it crossed into the mainline I think came primarily as a result of the Church Growth movement. The model of Willow Creek in Chicago, where Bill Hybels self-consciously said, "We're going to change what church looks like, we're going to be relevant, we're going to be contemporary, we're going to reach the Generation-Xers and Baby Boomers where they are." And so in come the guitars and out go the organs. We imitate the secular world. The whole relevant cry was to be seeker-sensitive.
Well, the Bible says in the first place that no seeks after God. So that's a misunderstanding. But more significantly, there's a self-conscious attempt to grow churches by pitching worship to the unbeliever. So what happens in the church? Ninety percent of the churches in America are under 200 members, and the guy's out there struggling, how can I get my church to grow? And they look around and see that the churches that are flourishing are the ones that we call happy-clappy churches. "What's your felt need?" If it's pop-psychology, we got it. People don't beat on the door saying, "Please can I have expository preaching every Sunday?" Unless you're a Christian. It's hungering for the Word of God.
I say the most telling symbol of the modern church is what I call the portable Plexiglass pulpit syndrome. Now, I understand that there are lots of churches where there's a man up there, or a woman, standing up there with a portable Plexiglass pulpit who's preaching the Word of God. But not many. And the art form there is speaking as loud as the sermon. The art form is saying, "The pulpit is something that is not necessary to worship. It's something that we can move out of here and get it out of the way. There's nothing fixed, permanent, or elevated about it." The whole understanding of what a sermon is, is dramatically altered. I've already said too much.
CBP: Knowing that, what does worship look like in your church?
RC: Well, it's not Anglican. We don't have a high liturgy. But we have a string quartet that plays classical Christian music.
CBP: Are you playing violin still?
RC: Yes, I am playing violin, but not in the string quartet. I'm not nearly proficient enough to do that.
When people walk into the church, they greet, fellowship, and so on until 10 minutes before the worship service starts. Then the lights dim, the prelude begins, and there is an indication in the bulletin that this is now a time of silent preparation for worship. We ask people to prepare themselves for coming into the presence of God. We talk frequently about the transition, that the door, the entrance to the church, is a threshold. We're leaving the common, entering the uncommon. Leaving the secular, entering the sacred. Leaving the profane, entering into the holy.
Taking off on Hebrews, we're no longer going to mountains that you can touch with hands, but entering into the heavenly sanctuary. We really believe in the spirituality, that when we gather on Sunday morning, we're gathering not just with each other, but with the angels, the archangels, with God, with Christ, with the spirits of just men made perfect and the general assembly on high. But there is the communion of saints that is to be an integral part, and that we're to be a part of that on Sunday morning.
And then we just have the traditional things like a call to worship, an invocation, and we sing the Sanctus every Sunday which is a very important part of our worship. People really love the Sanctus. And then we read from the Law as preparation for the gospel We have every Sunday a 15-verse reading, and now we're going through Exodus, and people stand while I read without comment 15-20 verses from the book of Exodus. And then, the sermons are later, when I read the New Testament lesson, everybody stands for that. The sermons are expository in this sense: I preach through a book. I took two years to preach through the Gospel of John, two years to preach through Acts, now I'm into the Gospel of Mark and we go verse by verse. So I can't just beat my favorite drums. Whatever the text is for next week, it follows what I've done this week. And I have to prepare people so that they hear the whole counsel of God. And then we have an evening service where I'm doing the same exposition only longer, 15 minutes or so, on Romans.
At the center of it is Scripture. And our church is designed to look like a medieval castle.
CBP: Because that's more holy? I'm teasing.
RC: It is!
CBP: But do you think there's a certain beauty that is more attractive to God?
RC: I do. I don't think it's just Romanesque or just Gothic or anything like that. However, let's look at this table we're sitting at here. Why is this table the shape it is? Because this is designed for the purpose of having the kind of conversation we're having here. Every form is an art form. Every form communicates something. We don't think about it, most of it is subliminal. But how churches are designed have a message, an unspoken, non-verbal message architecturally. There's a reason that the medieval and later cathedrals had vaulted arches and high ceilings. The whole sense of space was to sweep the soul up into a sense of adoring the transcendent majesty of God.
Modern churches are designed more functionally to accommodate fellowship. They're human-centered. In fact, the number one reason people go to church, according to the polls, is for fellowship. There's nothing wrong with fellowship, but that's not the number one reason we're supposed to go to church. We're supposed to go to worship. And the fellowship is an added benefit. How you design your sanctuary makes it more or less conducive to serious worship.
Obviously, you can go into wonderful cathedrals where nothing's happening inside -- it's dead. Or you can go into the catacombs and find the liveliest spiritual worship in history. So the building doesn't make it happen, it can just be more or less conducive. It can support what you're trying to do. For example, when Hybels designed Willow Creek he self-consciously designed it not to look like a church, but to more look like a music hall, because that was the non-verbal message he was trying to communicate. Here you come to understand the best contemporary music and be comfortable with your fellowship, and this is part of being seeker-sensitive. Don't scare them with churchiness.
CBP: You're not saying that architecture and art within a certain time period is what honors God. It can be modern, as long it is designed to do these things you're talking about.
RC: It can be. It depends. The problem is that we're living in an age of modernism. And most of modern architecture expresses that "ism."
CBP: For example, a recent book by Philip Ryken titled Art for God's Sake...
RC: Phil Ryken.
CBP: See, you know him, I don't. I have to call him Philip. He says that Christians need to reclaim the arts today. Not just say it's modern so it's not Christian.
RC: No. We can still be creative in the contemporary mode and still be faithful to the principles of God. I believe that. But so much of the art today is an attempt to be acceptable to the modernistic spirit of the age. This is not the high age of Christianity. There's more to Christian art than putting a halo on top of a picture.
CBP: What do you recommend people do during the 10-minute preparation for worship at your church?
RC: I think that most of it is in silent meditation, quiet meditation. There are helps. During the prelude you rarely hear the organ. It's just almost always the string quartet, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, I just love that. You watch the people during that time and they're just transfixed.
CBP: What areas do you struggle with worship?
RC: I don't like to sing hymns that I don't know. As far as worship in our church, I don't struggle at all because it's glorious for me. I love every second of the worship service. I struggle when I go in other churches and I feel like I'm in a cabaret. I find it hard to worship in those environments.
CBP: Worship isn't just corporate worship, is it?
RC: Oh, no. But it's chiefly corporate. Personal worship can never take the place of corporate worship. Corporate worship is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. That's why we have a church. That's why there's a Sabbath day. That's why God, whenever He saves an individual puts him into a body right away. That's how we're supposed to learn our private worship, from corporate worship.
This is not essential to classical worship, but one thing that we do that's different from other churches is in the pastoral prayer. We are praying through the entire book of Psalms, which will take at least three years, maybe four years, to do it. Let's say today we're at the 23rd Psalm. The pastoral prayer would go something like this, "Oh, Lord, we rejoice that You are our Shepherd. And because You're our Shepherd we can trust you, never to be in want. Even when You discipline us, we know it's for our sanctification." So we pray through the prayer, so while we're praying, people are also hearing the language of the psalms. I've noticed from a historical perspective, where the psalms have a strong place in the worship of the people of God, the church is strong. Again, you're praying God's words back to Him.
CBP: Not in rote.
RC: Not in rote, nor is it a rote liturgy. It's an application of the Scripture to our petitions before God. So we don't have "just" prayers in our church. You know what "just" prayers are? "Lord, we just want to thank You, we just want to tell You how much we love You, we're just so glad to be here with You and just thank You so much for the blessings that You just seem to keep pouring out on us."
CBP: Okay, now I'm going to be self-conscious about my prayers...
RC: I'm even concerned. Maybe I'm just getting to be a cantankerous old man, or is there a theological concern? I was just talking the other day about language. I'm not a King James-only person by any means, in fact I don't use the King James Version. I use the New King James Version or ESV. But I say, why is it that historically, almost every language in the western world had a formal language of personal pronouns that was used to speak about God? Why was that? Because the first petition of the Lord's Prayer is "Hallowed be Thy Name." That when we approach God, we're going to approach Him with a sense of awe, gravity, and reverence, even down to the language we speak.
In the Old Testament, before people came into the presence of God they were commanded to wash and to put on their clothes. Now, obviously James tells us if somebody comes in with ratty clothes, you're not supposed to keep them out. But that presupposes that you would notice the difference between ratty clothes and a more formal dress when you enter into the presence of God. Now the standard dress for God is blue jeans and a sweatshirt. It's the most casual environment in the world. We want to make everybody feel comfortable, and nothing makes people feel uncomfortable than a sense of the holy.
CBP: It goes right back to what you said initially, that the church has tried to change the purpose of gathering into evangelism, so naturally that follows. You said there's a better model. The purpose of getting together is to worship the Almighty God. So, how do we fit evangelism into the church?
RC: You train people how to do it during the week, you can have special meetings during the week, evangelism outreach.
CBP: Is that how your church does it?
RC: Yes! Outreach, missions, all of that is evangelism. Also, I will include from time to time, more often than not, I'm aware that there are people even in the congregation who are professing Christians who probably aren't, so I do make some kind of evangelistic application. But the most powerful force of evangelism is what? It's the Word of God, the power of God unto salvation. The gospel. God has chosen the foolishness of preaching. Again, this is the impact of mass evangelism. We think that you have to have special messages for evangelism. A special message of personal salvation for the gospel to go out. No. Every time you're expounding the Word of God, evangelism is taking place.
CBP: It's not always laying out the gospel...
RC: Of course not! It's not always laying out the gospel. Do you know how I was converted? Do you know the Scripture text that got to me? I'll tell ya. A guy quoted to me the book of Ecclesiastes: "If a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie." [Eccl. 11:3] That was the Word of God I heard. I saw myself as a tree, lying in the forest, rotting away to nothing, and I ran to the cross. That's the power of the Word of God.
The other thing, I have to say this, what's really bad is that people want to do evangelism and the people who do evangelism full time don't know what the gospel is. What's the gospel? Do you know what the average Christian would tell you? God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Is that the gospel? It's not even remotely close to the gospel. Yet the largest evangelistic association in the world uses that as their gospel. It's not the gospel.
How about this one: God loves you unconditionally. You won't find that one in the Bible either. How about this: Here's the good news. You can have a victorious life by having a spirit-filled life. Is that the gospel? It's not the gospel. How about this: You can have a personal relationship with Jesus. You know what I say? The devil has a personal relationship with Jesus. It's a hostile one, but it's a personal relationship.
There is objective content to the gospel.
CBP: I think you need to define what "believing in Jesus" is, too.
RC: Absolutely. It's a huge problem. Here's what it is? You want to get saved? Here's what you do. Repeat after me this sinner's prayer. You did it? Congratulations, you're in the kingdom of God. Or, you want to be saved? Come forward to the altar. If you come forward here and give your life to Jesus you'll be saved. All of those things are methods to get people to make a profession of faith. And we are supposed to make a profession of faith. But nobody has ever been justified by a profession of faith. You have to believe and trust in the gospels, not in a trip to the altar, not in that prayer, not in that signed commitment. Am I making sense?
Driving down the street in Orlando, I'll drive past churches that say on the billboard outside: Sunday Morning Services, 9:30 Traditional, 11:00 Contemporary." Talk to the pastor, "What kind of service do you have?" "Oh, we have blended." "What do you mean?" "Well, we offer contemporary, we offer traditional." "Why do you do that? Have you studied to see what is most pleasing to God, or have you counted noses in your congregation and asked yourself what the people want?" That's the clearest example that worship is being designed to meet the so-called felt needs of the people.
Do you know when the first time that happened with great success in the Bible? The most successful worship service in the Bible in terms of numbers? In terms of excitement and passion for worship? Where the worship was so glorious that people from miles away could hear it and thought a war broke out? Dancing around a golden calf. And God heard that worship, and wasn't very happy. But it was exciting, and the numbers were there.
CBP: Why did you dedicate your book to John MacArthur?
RC: I'll tell you why. Because John MacArthur does not care what the world is doing. He has one binding passion, and that's to be faithful to the Word of God. And that's why. He's a valiant man for God in our day.
Purchase a copy of A Taste of Heaven directly from Reformation Trust.