Being a Son, Not a Son-in-Law

I was at church yesterday and the preacher was teaching about Praying with Power.

She taught that one of the main keys to effective prayer is to know our identity in Christ.

John 1:12 says:

To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…

The point the speaker made was that if we realise we are God’s children, we have a right to our inheritance in Christ, making us bold in our prayers and petitions.

I think this is a point easiest understood by those who are married.

Even now, when I go visit my parents’ home, I am completely at ease opening up the freezer and reaching for my mum’s extensive ice-cream collection. Even though my wife shares the same weakness for ice-cream as I do, she is much more hesitant and cautious. She will only have an ice-cream if my mum asks if shed like one.

The opposite is true whenever I stay with my wife’s parents in Singapore. Even though I am told to feel at home, inevitably, I feel more like a guest.

Thats the difference when we live our lives as sons (or daughters) of God rather than as sons (or daughters)-in-law.

Under the covenant of grace, we have access to every blessing that God has promised through His son. We are adopted into God’s family and are co-heirs with Christ, seated with Him in the heavenly places in a position of authority. Despite this, we often live as though we are still under the law, as if we are sons-in-law or daughters-in-law. We are careful when we approach God; we feel like we still need to do things to please Him and earn His favour.

I am thankful that the favour of God under the covenant of grace is unmerited! It doesn’t depend on what I do, but its all about what Christ has done for me! I am so grateful that I am a son of God, rather than a son-in-law!

Love and Hate

Have you heard the phrase “love the sinner but hate the sin” being bandied around in church?

I’ve finally (after all these years as a Christian) heard an explanation of this phrase which finally makes some sense during a Joseph Prince message.

Think about someone with cancer. You love someone to the same degree you hate their cancer because the cancer is destroying them.

In the same way, you love someone to the degree that you hate their sin because of sin’s destructive nature in their lives.

Introduction to the Apostolic

Recently, I came across a phrase which gave definition to the sort of worship which I feel God has anointed me for: “apostolic worship”. In a later post, I intend to unpack that term a bit more fully, but for now, I want to shed some light on the word “apostolic” because I think that phrase is often misunderstood by the church.

Bill Johnson actually introduces the concept in his book The Essential Guide to Healing (2011) at pp 117 onwards, so I’m just going to quote him:

The word apostle in the New Testament means “sent one”. Apostle was originally a secular term used by both the Greeks and the Romans to refer to the leader of a special envoy. That leader had the job of establishing the culture of the empire he represented into the daily lives of the citizens the empire conquered. Leaders had discovered that the citizens of conquered lands went back to their previous way of life rather quickly without a transforming influence. It was extremely frustrating to see no change result in a conquered nation, which nullified the purpose of the conquest. For this reason, they came up with a strategy to transform the culture of a conquered city so that when the empire’s leaders visited, it would feel the same as home…. The position of apostle was created in response to this need. Jesus adopted the term to reveal His intentions. His apostles lead a special envoy of people who have the job of establishing the culture of the empire of heaven into the daily lives of the citizens they serve.

The Lord’s Prayer is an apostolic prayer. On earth as it is in heaven. Make this world like that one. That does not mean you have to be an apostle to pray it. It means that the purpose of the prayer is a clear expression of the apostolic mandate to transform the thinking and lifestyles of the nation so that they are the same as the governing nation – in this case, heaven. This becomes the mandate of the Church when it has a full expression of healthy leadership.

Understood this way, revolutionary worship, worship which transforms, is apostolic in nature. It is about bringing heaven to earth, bringing transformation to those who worship, but also unleashing the culture of heaven to our communities, cities and nations.

Christmas is for Worship

Merry Christmas to all the worship revolutionaries out there as today we celebrate the birth of the first worship revolutionary!

Through Jesus’ coming, the worship of Jehovah was changed forever in at least two ways: first the place of our worship; and second, the participants of worship.

John 1:14 says this:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NIV)

The word “dwelling” is actually “tabernacle”. God’s tabernacle came amongst us. It is no coincidence that John used this language. He was about to unfold a theology of worship that transcended what the Jews had until then understood. Worship would no longer be site specific.

David used to long to dwell in the courts of the Lord; now God evinces a desire to dwell in the domain of humankind.

Isaiah 14:7 says:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

God with us. Now the temple of God dwells with us but John takes it further.

In John 4, the Samaritan woman engages Jesus in theological debate as to where worship happens. Jesus answered that the entire basis of the woman’s question had been misplaced.
In the oft-quoted passage in John 4:23-24, Jesus responds:

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.

Jesus was saying worship was now accessible to those who are born of God and filled with the Spirit. Worship was about to be, and indeed has already become, globalised.

Further it was no longer going to continue to be the privilege of the Jews. Now the participants of worship would be (to prefigure the language of Paul) first the Jews, then the Gentiles.

The Samaritan woman experienced this firsthand. Not only did her response constitute her worship (sans temple) representing a change in location and methodology, but her race and background no longer excluded her.

Two groups of worshippers bowed before the newborn Jesus in a lowly manger. First the Jews – the shepherds who tended the flock. I learnt something interesting today at New Creation Church (I’ll share more on this later): it was very likely that the shepherds were responsible for tending the blemish-less animals for temple sacrifice. So these participants were entirely familiar with the traditions of temple worship.

And then a second group came. The Persian Magi who anticipated the birth of a King. They were neither Jews nor did they understand temple protocol. All these seekers knew was that a King was born:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1, 2 NIV)

First the Jews. Then, the Gentiles.

This revolution prefigured by the prophets was finally instituted by Emmanuel, God with us, born this day more than 2000 years ago. And so, Christmas is for worship.

Holy Worship Team, Batman

In a previous post, I talked about how an apprehension and understanding of the grace of God will transform the way we approach Him in worship.

In this context, I want to pose the question: who is qualified to serve on the worship team?

In the olden days, we used to impose a high requirement of “holiness” (I’ll explain later why I’ve put this in quotation marks). Generally, a person wanting to join the worship team had to show some proficiency in music, although ultimately, it was mostly about character, faithfulness and a proven “track record”. One of the things we used to do to test a new recruit’s suitability was to put them on a “lesser” duty (it should be apparent why I’ve used quotation marks here) such as operating the AV and see if they stick it out. This is even if the person was a complete tech-nube.

This created a couple of unexpected problems. Usually, the people on the worship team were seen as “a cut above” every one else, creating a culture of exclusivity, thereby breeding resentment amongst the rest of the congregation who were obviously second-rate in holiness stakes. The second problem was that some people on the worship team, whilst exhibiting loads of character, had very little musical or vocal skill. The lesser skilled people invariable dragged down the musical quality as the team played to the lowest common denominator.

Yet, there is a third problem. And that is that those who were on the worship team felt a keen pressure to keep up appearances of holiness, making it difficult for them to live transparently and authentically.

An understanding of transforming grace changes the way we look at who is qualified to serve.

My former pastor used to say this: “No one is good enough to serve”. What he means is that, of ourselves, we are not worthy but we are made worthy through Christ. I prefer to look at it from the opposite angle and say “everyone is qualified to serve by the grace of God!”

If we look at it this way, standards of holiness should no longer be a measure of whether a person is good enough to be on the worship team. Rather, musical skill and ability become the main qualifying criteria.

You might ask: “doesn’t that create its own exclusivity problem?” And the answer is “yes”, but no different a problem to any other ministry. An usher in the welcome ministry should have a personality that draws people in and have a winning smile. That’s the usher’s gift. A preacher should be good at preaching. A teacher should be good at teaching. And a worship musician should be good at musicking.

Rather than elevate worship ministry above other more “menial” ministries (and in fact, in my view, no ministry is “menial”, it’s just that we have to change our perceptions a bit), we should elevate all ministry to its rightful place of worth. In that sense, I think that we should want worthy and holy people serving in all our ministries at church.

That leads me to the question of what it means to be “holy”.

Some people argue that the worship ministry, following the Old Testament model, requires a particular level of holiness. They point to the fact that the presence of God is so holy that the High Priest who has even a trace of sin will be struck dead in the Holy of Holies. They point to the story of Uzzah, who was struck down when he touched the Ark in 1 Sam 16 and the fact that David was only able to bring back the Ark when it was lifted on the shoulders of the Levites.

The way I see it, the new covenant of grace changes the system. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that where there is a change of the law, a change in covenant, there is also a change in the priesthood.

First Peter 2:9 tells us that all of us are now “a royal priesthood, a holy nation”. This means that all of us are now holy. All of us are priests and ministers before God.

This brings me to the question of what it means to be holy. Holy as I understand it means “set apart” (“hagios” in the Greek). It is a particular posture and status, not a set of behaviours and actions.

That means we are all holy, no matter what we’ve done.

Think about it this way: if holiness consists of actions, then we had better make sure that all who serve on the worship team are 100% pure and without sin. We all know this is impossible. If this is in fact the requirement, no one would achieve it. This means that God will not inhabit the praises of His people; the unholiness will hinder the flow of the Spirit; worse still, those who purport to touch the Ark (the presence of God) will risk a sudden and untimely demise!

Holiness as a status is a different concept. We have done nothing of ourselves to attain that state. Rather, Jesus the Lamb without blemish took our place and his righteousness was imputed to us. So irrespective of anything we do, we are holy not by our own works but because of what Jesus has done.

What about the verse that says “Be ye holy, as I am holy”? Well, I think that is saying that as God is set apart, and as we are set apart, let us live up to the standard of being set apart. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are already holy. We just need to act it out.

There’s a verse in Exodus when God struck down the Egyptians with a plague (I can’t remember which one). But the Bible says that the Israelites were spared and it says that God distinguished between his people and the unholy. Did Israel do anything to receive that protection or was it simply by virtue of their being God’s chosen people?

In the same way then, I want to suggest that all those who serve on the worship ministry are already holy. This is so even if they are still struggling with some very overt sins. (My only qualification to this is the verse where Paul warns us not to stumble others; so for that reason, I might not let everyone join the team. Even then, there are those who sing badly and they are very stumbling indeed!)

Going to even greater extremes, the modern worship movement has several stories of now prominent worship leaders who began serving in worship ministry even before they had formally crossed the line to become Christians (that concept of when a person crosses the line is of itself worthy of exploration. I believe however that these people, by becoming part of the worship ministry, were already on the “way”). Lincoln Brewster and Henry Seeley come to mind.

I have heard Henry Seeley share on a number of occasions how he used to sit in the back of youth group utterly disinterested until Russell Evans got him to start playing the keyboard.

In one church I visited in Japan, they used to get the unchurched in to perform the music as a means of outreach!

I couldn’t say that in any of those cases, God’s presence was diminished because of the make-up of the worship team!

So then, what qualifications should we set? I think the only distinction remains one of musical ability. Let’s face it. The worship team is not more special than the rest of the congregation. Everyone should be worshipping anyway. The only difference is that they can play music, sing well or dance beautifully. When that becomes the defining qualification, then the quality, the excellence of the musicianship will begin to improve dramatically. Excellence will be the hallmark of the music team, coupled with the powerful sense of God’s sovereign presence responding to the praises of a group of holy people gathered to worship.

Encountering Grace

In order to truly worship, I believe that we need to apprehend the grace of God.

Now, most of us in Christian circles have some idea of “grace”. It is by faith, through grace, that we are saved. In fact, grace is probably one of the key distinctives of the Protestant movement. Yet, I believe that we don’t really understand or live in the fullness of grace.

The coming revolution in worship is anchored in a revolution of grace which is already beginning to pervade the church. In the context of worship ministry, it affects everything: how we approach God; who can serve on the worship team; the content of our songs.

I first came across grace theology more than 10 years ago. I was a university student at the time, and some friends of mine had just graduated. Some of them had gone to Singapore to work. One of my friends ended up settling into Joseph Prince’s New Creation Church. I soon found out that one of the things New Creation Church was teaching was that you don’t need to confess your sins to be forgiven. Without much further investigation, I was ready to label the church heretical and I had some words to my friend about why she should find another church.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not really that fanatical. But such a teaching flew in the face of everything I had been taught since I was a young Christian. In fact, within weeks of becoming a Christian, I had to memorise 1 John 1:9 (“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins…”) as a key text of the Assurance of Forgiveness.

Then, an influential leader in our church started spruiking grace teachings (primarily from Joseph Prince) and tried to convince me that what I had believed about 1 John 1:9 was wrong (incidentally, I know now that there are more pivotal arguments in favour of the gospel of grace and arguing 1 John 1:9 as the starting point isn’t probably the best idea to convert anyone). Of course, I dismissed him the best I could, but I think he left enough doubt in a number of us that led us to start investigating grace further.

I have since heard other people preach on grace and I have also read books and listened to sermons by Joseph Prince.

I am now firmly entrenched in the grace camp…. Well, sort of.

I agree mostly with the grace teachers. But at the end of the day, grace theology is just that – theology. And theology is just a man-made grid to interpret Scripture and experience. So, I’m not really an apologist for grace theology. I like seeing things through eyes of grace; I like how a realisation of grace has changed my life and my way of thinking, but I think grace speaks for itself and doesn’t really need anyone to stand up for it. I’m not really fussed what people think about 1 John 1:9, or whether Romans 8:1,2 teaches that “there is no condemnation”, period, or that “there is no condemnation” only for those who walk according to the law of the spirit.

But if I were to err, I would rather err on the side of grace.

Grace is particularly transformational if you grow up in a culture of performance. That was the case for me growing up in a charismatic church in the 90s. Back then, our church still had some residue of the strictures inherited from the fundamentalist, holiness movements that was a tributary of the charismatic renewal. There were lots of extra-biblical rules. Drinking (as in alcohol) was frowned upon (even if you don’t get drunk). Guys and gals weren’t allowed to hold hands. In fact, they couldn’t even share a house. A holy Christian did their “quiet time” every morning and memorised Scripture. They also go to every conceivable meeting the church put on.

Whether it was the intent of the church or not, I grew up with a performance mentality. By that, I mean the need to do the right things to earn the favour of God.

How did that play out? If I was leading worship that week, I made sure I behaved myself, confessed all my sins, kept an extra short “account”. If I did all of that, I could be sure that the worship on Sunday would be awesome. The whole church would be blessed on account of, uh, me. If the worship tanked, then there must have been some unconfessed sin which I hadn’t dealt with.

I now understand that God is a lot bigger than my sins. Actually, I think that the church is more bothered by sin than God is. God has already done all that is necessary to deal with sin. We started by grace, not by works, and we continue by grace and not by works.

When I came to a realisation of the grace of God, suddenly there was glorious freedom. I stopped feeling like I had to earn God’s favour. Just as he freely gave favour at the point of my conversion, I believe that he continues to freely give favour in every part of my walk with him.

I’m much more relaxed now when I lead worship. Instead of focussing on me, I now come with a confident expectation that every time the church gathers, God is ready to meet his people, even if his people aren’t quite ready to encounter him. I come knowing that God is ready to bless so that we can be a blessing. I come knowing that, regardless of what the worship team does, God is ready to intervene in and transform the lives of his people.

Encountering grace is truly liberating!

And as a postscript, I am now a fan of Joseph Prince. We visit New Creation every time we are in Singapore.