The One Who Endures: The Church
Not too long ago at a small party, I was chatting with a young lady who had just switched churches. She had left a rather large, seeker-sensitive type of church in the Washington D.C. area, a church which put a lot of emphasis on the worship experience. And she had now joined a much smaller, reformed Presbyterian church with an emphasis on expositional preaching. When I asked why she switched, her answer revealed a lot.
She said that as long as she could remember she had been struggling with her assurance of faith, and only recently came to realize that a large part of her struggle was due to listening too much to the constantly changing emotions of her heart. What’s more, she said that the church she used to attend would put a premium on making sure the worship was always “upbeat and pumped”, making sure her heart left church excited and happy. The worship was purposefully geared towards an emotionalism, which she later realized was only catering to her temptation to find assurance in how she felt.
But as she wrestled throughout the week with the lows of normal life, she came to realize that what she needed most was not the experience-centered worship of modern evangelicalism but the Christ-centered promises of God’s preached word. Her feelings, much like the worship she was used to, was ephemeral and fleeting - she could get the same kind of goosebumps at her favorite secular artist’s live-show.
It was the promises of God in his unchanging and innerrant word - she came to see that as her only source of real assurance. Her decision to switch churches was a decision to switch what her heart was being fed Sunday after Sunday: either an emotional high based on chord-progressions and crowd participation or the living and active word of God preached in its full context and meaning.
And then my friend said this, that before her paradigm shift, she had been very close to giving up on the faith. She was wearied by all the emotional ups and downs that came with life in the real world, emotions which never seemed to be truly dealt with at her church. From the church’s perspective I’m sure their motive was to encourage all who attended and to give them an experience that would help them persevere. And yet, the design had the opposite effect upon my friend.
Even a quick glance through the Psalms shows us a more balanced approach to worship. Psalms like Psalm 88 that deals honestly with all the pain and suffering that is part of our normal experiences east of Eden. Psalms like Psalm 42 which wrestle deeply with the internal struggles of our own deceitful hearts. Psalms like Psalm 39 which offer a candid understanding of how short and insignificant our lives really are. There really is something to worshiping God in and through the whole spectrum of human emotion, perfectly captured for us in the inspired Psalms.
But deeper still, that soil from which any kind of perseverance must ultimately take root, are the promises of God revealed in His word and applied by His Spirit. Listen to John Owen in this regard, it is worth quoting him at length:
“Sometimes the soul, because it has somewhat remaining in it the principle that it had in its old condition, is put to question whether it be a child of God or not... The soul, by the power of its own conscience, is brought before the law of God. There a man puts in his plea, - that he is a child of God, that he belongs to God’s family; and to this end he produces all his evidences, everything whereby faith gives him an interest in God. Satan, in the meantime, opposes with all his might; sin and law assist him and many flaws are found in the man. The truth of his status is questioned and the soul hangs in suspense. [Then] the Comforter comes, and, by a word of promise overpowers the heart with a comfortable persuasion (and bears down all objections) that his plea is good, and that he is a child of God... [This] enables us to put forth acts of filial obedience, kind and child-like, crying out to God as ‘Abba, Father’... The soul knows his voice when he speaks... When the Lord Jesus at one word stilled the raging sea and wind, all that were with him knew there was divine power at hand. And when the Holy Spirit by one word stills the tumults and storms that are raised in the soul, giving it immediate security, [we] rejoice in his presence.”
Here Owen rightly shows that it is the Spirit of God through the Word of God that brings comfort to a doubting soul and which produces a willingness to persevere in obedient joy. Real perseverance doesn’t come out of an emotional high, manufactured through a worship experience. No, real perseverance, even in the midst of doubt, comes through a Spirit-enabled trust in God’s word. Consider the first five verses of Psalm 130.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.”
Do you see where the Psalmist finds his ability to persevere and wait for the Lord, even through his tear-filled cries of doubt? It is in God’s word. My friend who told me about her new church home where each week the worship was centered on the exposition of Scripture, told me that she still wrestled with doubts and was still tempted to listen to her feelings as a barometer of her salvation. But she also remarked that she’s found a renewed hope in following after Christ no matter what her heart feels because she’s holding more tightly to the promises God has given her in His word. She was thankful to have found a church that hadn’t succumbed to the emotion-centered worship of modernity, but has remained rooted in the ancient paths and where she has found rest for her soul.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 John Owen, Works, 2:241-42