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Presbyterian “Quirks”: The Sabbath, Psalms-Singing, and Images of Christ
The Presbyterian Vision for Biblical and Spiritual Piety
Note: These are the lecture notes for the seventh class of an 8-week series that I am teaching at Harvest Community Church, called “What Does it Mean to be Presbyterian?” Links to the other class lecture notes may be found at the end of this post.
The title of this class captures what most people think when they first learn about Sabbatarianism, Psalms-singing, and a rejection of images of Christ, three distinctive areas of Presbyterian piety: That’s quirky! These distinctives raise a lot of questions, and, even with people who have been Christians for a long time, they struggle to understand just why Presbyterians insist on these elements to such a degree.
In many areas, Presbyterians might simply seem traditional in their style. Even if an evangelical Christian prefers more “contemporary” worship styles, musical selections, and creative expressions in their worship services, they probably have some frame of reference to understand a “traditional” style that doesn’t necessarily go in on those approaches to worship. When it comes to these “quirks” however, many evangelical Christians are shocked to learn that Presbyterians consider these issues to be of great moral significance.
This is where we see a difference, then, between a traditional approach to piety and worship, and a confessional Presbyterian approach. These issues are not nostalgic pining for “the good old days,” but deeply formed biblical convictions.
In this class, however, our goal will not be to defend these distinctive beliefs and practices. There are other resources on those issues. In particular, R. Scott Clark has collected a stellar set of resources on the Sabbath, Psalms-singing, and images of Christ.
Instead, in this class, my goal is to offer a positive vision to help you imagine what Reformed and Presbyterian piety and worship might be like if you began to lean into these practices. My goal is that, even if you are not (yet!) persuaded that these practices are biblical, you might at least have a positive imagination about how these practices might reform your relationship with God. Or, at the very least, I hope that after this class you won’t find these beliefs and practices so quirky!
The Foundation: A Biblical and Spiritual Piety
The biblical foundation for this approach is in 2 Corinthians 5:7: “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” This verse captures not merely an encouragement that there is a world beyond this life that we cannot see; more, it captures an entire ethos for living. John Owen writes this:
There are, therefore, two ways or degrees of beholding the glory of Christ, which are constantly distinguished in the Scripture. The one is by faith in this world, which is ‘the evidence of things not seen’; the other is by sight, or immediate vision in eternity, ‘We walk by faith and not by sight’ (2 Cor. 5:7)....No man shall ever behold the glory of Christ by sight hereafter, who does not in some measure behold it by faith here in this world. Grace is a necessary preparation for glory, and faith for sight.
If the essence of Christian piety is to behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), this is something that is (1) by faith, (2) spiritual—that is, by the Spirit, and (3) through the Word of God. That is, our spirituality is guided not by what we can see, but by faith in God’s Word.
That our spirituality should be guided by faith isn’t necessarily a controversial point among evangelical Christians. Where this becomes controversial, though, is when we extend this logic to chart out how to think about these Presbyterian “quirks.”
I’d like to draw our attention to two important and surprising texts about the Sabbath. First:
 And the LORD said to Moses,  “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.  You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.  Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.  Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.  It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Ex. 31:12–17)
When the Lord insists that his people keep the Sabbath, he does so by insisting that the Sabbath is a sign. A sign is something visible that points us to something else—in this case, to something invisible. Specifically, the Lord teaches that the Sabbath is a (visible) sign that he (invisibly) sanctifies us.
Sabbath-keeping, then, is a sign about our spirituality, but not a sign of what we are doing for God. That is, Sabbath-keeping is not a weekly method for virtue signaling (“I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like those immoral people who don’t keep Sabbath!”). Rather, Sabbath-keeping is a sign of what God does for us. We rest as a testimony to the watching world of what God is doing in and through us, to sanctify us. It is a powerful reminder amongst ourselves, as well as to the watching world, that we cease from work because we believe that God is at work (John 5:17).
The second text is an important corollary:
 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;  then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Is. 58:13–14)
God teaches us that we learn to delight in him by learning to delight in his Sabbath. That is, the Sabbath is a means of God’s grace toward us. As a sign, the Sabbath proclaims to the watching world that God is sanctifying us. But, as a means of grace, the Sabbath is the venue in which God teaches us to delight in him.
It is in this context that we must understand the strict limitations for the Lord’s Day:
WLC Q. 117. How is the sabbath or the Lord’s day to be sanctified?
A. The sabbath or Lord’s day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God's worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.
We are to spend the entire Lord’s day in public and private exercises of worship—and we are to duly prepare our hearts and our affairs to enter into that worship as much as possible—not to restrict ourselves. Rather, the Lord’s Day is an invitation to delight in the Lord by worshiping him. This delight isn’t in something that is material, visible, or earthly, but in something that is spiritual, invisible, and heavenly.
As Thomas Boston observes, those who live according to the flesh choke on this spiritual delicacy of the Sabbath:
What pain and difficulty do men often find in bringing their hearts to religious duties! and what a task is it to the carnal heart to abide at them! It is a pain to it, to leave the world but a little to come before God. It is not easy to borrow time from the many things, to spend it upon the one thing needful. Men often go to God in duties, with their faces towards the world; and when their bodies are on the mount of ordinances, their hearts will be found at the foot of the hill 'going after their covetousness’ (Ezek 33.31). They are soon wearied of well-doing, for holy duties are not agreeable to their corrupt nature. Take notice of them at their worldly business, set them down with their carnal company, or let them be enjoying a lust, time seems to them to fly, and drive furiously, so that it is gone before they are aware. But how heavily does it pass, while a prayer, a sermon, or a Sabbath lasts! The Lord’s day is the longest day of all the week with many; therefore they must sleep longer that morning, and go sooner to bed that night, than ordinarily they do; that the day may be made of a tolerable length: for their hearts say within them, ‘When will the Sabbath be gone?’ (Amos 8.5). The hours of worship are the longest hours of that day: hence, when duty is over, they are like men eased of a burden, and when sermon is ended, many have neither the grace nor the good manners to stay till the blessing is pronounced, but, like the beasts, their head is away, so soon as a man puts his hand to loose them; and why? because, while they are at ordinances, they are, as Doeg, ‘detained before the Lord’ (1 Sam 21.7).
As Paul reminds us, however, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Learning to delight in the Lord’s Day is entirely spiritually discerned.
Psalms-singing is perhaps not difficult for Bible-believing evangelicals to understand. After all, the Scriptures explicitly command us to sing psalms:
 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,  addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,  giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,  submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph. 5:18–21)
Classically, Presbyterians have argued that “hymns and spiritual songs” are also psalms. The Greek words appear in the Greek translation of the Psalter. So, the word “hymn” (ὕμνος; hymnos) appears in Psalm 40:3: “He put a new song in my mouth, a song [ὕμνον; hymnon] of praise to our God.” Then, the word “song” (ᾠδή; ōdē) appears (for example) in the titles of Psalm 68: “A Song” (ᾠδῆς; ōdēs). Also, we should observe that the Westminster Confession of Faith identifies the “singing of psalms with grace in the heart” as an element of biblical worship, but does not explicitly acknowledge the singing of any songs from outside the psalter (WCF 21.5). This is called the “exclusive psalmody” position, and it is still practiced among some Presbyterian groups, like the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA).
The PCA, however, does acknowledge both hymns and psalms as a biblical part of public worship:
Praising God through the medium of music is a duty and a privilege. Therefore, the singing of hymns and psalms and the use of musical instruments should have an important part in public worship. (BCO 51-1)
Even so, the PCA acknowledges a special place of importance for the Psalms, and a special caution in regard to the hymns we select:
It is recommended that Psalms be sung along with the hymns of the Church, but that caution be observed in the selection of hymns, that they be true to the Word. Hymns should have the note of praise, or be in accord with the spirit of the sermon. (BCO 51-3)
Again, this much may be approved of by many Bible-believing evangelicals—at least in theory. In practice, there are often objections against singing Psalms because of the fact that metric Psalms are much less musically appealing than some of the other worship music available. In practice, then, it can sometimes be very difficult to make room for Psalms within our public congregational singing.
Why, then, is it so important to sing the Psalms together? If we think about our foundational principles of biblical and spiritual piety, the reasons become quickly clear. We sing Psalms to fill our souls with God’s very Word. The words are not always the words we would initially think to sing if we were writing these for ourselves; however, that demonstrates to us that our souls have not been as formed by the Word of God as they should be.
G. Duncan Lowe writes this:
What we see, then, is that although the Psalms do not express every legitimate Christian prayer, they do serve as the God-given model of prayer forged in the heat of testing. And the voice that speaks in the Psalms is one with many layers of connection to Jesus, both in His glory and in His agony. It is this inspired voice, even more than the poetry of the Psalms, that makes this part of God’s such an instrument of soul-searching power in His hands. It is part of our legacy in Christ. Even the hard questions that the Psalms raise are part of our legacy as Christians and still have disturbing power today. This is so because though Jesus, now the risen and glorified Christ, rules with authority over all things in heaven and earth, we do not always see events turning out favorably for His people or for the honor of His name. Can we explain this away without reasons? Or can we block such thoughts from our minds? The Psalms show us a different path, a path of prayer that faces hard truths and avoids easy wrong answers. The Psalms also point us back to the cross of Christ, that mystery above all, where questions of God’s justice and God’s faithfulness come to resolution.
The Psalms teach us to see Christ’s (invisible) reign and rule through singing the Word of God.
Images of Christ
This one is probably the most difficult quirk for Bible-believing evangelicals to understand. Many such Christians grew up with children’s Bibles that included a number of illustrations, with many of them depicting Jesus in his earthly life and ministry. Also, Christians regularly include nativity sets with a small doll representing the body of our Savior during the first hours of his life on earth. Is that really so wrong?
If we begin with the fundamental biblical principles above, we should remember that our biblical and spiritual piety is given to what is spiritual and invisible. This does not mean that we deny that Jesus had a visible body, nor that we believe that he has abandoned his human nature now that he is glorified and ascended into heaven.
On the contrary, we avoid making images of Jesus precisely because we believe that he is visible in heaven now, although out of our sight. That is, we avoid making images of Jesus because we take his visibility so seriously. Peter gets at this idea when he contrasts our love for Jesus with the fact that we cannot now see him:
 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,  obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet. 1:8–9)
Imagine if a man went on a long trip away from his wife, and he selected a photo of a different woman to take along with him. It would do no good for him to try to justify his actions to his wife by insisting that even though it is not really a photo of her, the photo would lead him to love her while he was away from her. Of course not! That wife would rightly insist that her husband take her picture with him on his trip.
In the same way, it does no good to argue that our images of Jesus help us to love him more. First, he did not preserve any authoritative visual image to teach us what he looked like. Living by faith in this world is like preparing for the blind date that will be beyond our wildest dreams.
Second, while he did not give us a visual image, the Scriptures teach us that we do see him—that we must see him, albeit on his own terms. Specifically, the Scriptures teach us that we see him in his word, and especially in the preaching of the gospel:
2 Corinthians 4:4  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (ESV)
Galatians 3:1  O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (ESV)
2 Peter 1:16, 19  For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty…. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…. (ESV)
Thus, we return to the John Owen quotation that we considered originally. There are two ways of seeing the glory of Christ, and those two ways are constantly distinguished in Scripture. Now we see Christ by faith, but then we will behold him by sight. Rejecting images of Jesus is a way of keeping our hearts pure, for as Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
Still, this is not a situation that we must simply endure. God has purposefully appointed that our lives should be a time when we do not pollute our mind with images of Jesus. John Owen continues in explaining why God intends for us to see the glory of Christ by faith now. Namely, because by learning to see Christ by faith now, God makes us fit to see the full glory of Christ for all eternity:
We shall hereby be made fit for heaven…All men, indeed, think themselves fit enough for glory (what should hinder them?) if they could attain it; but it is because they know now what it is. Men shall not be clothed with glory, as it were, whether they will or no. It is to be received in that exercise of the faculties of their souls which such persons have no ability for. Music has no pleasure in it to them that cannot hear, nor the most beautiful colors, to them that cannot see. It would be no benefit to a fish to take him from the bottom of the ocean, filled with cold and darkness, and to place him under the beams of the sun; for he is no way suited to receive any refreshment thereby. Heaven itself would not be more advantageous to persons not renewed by the Spirit of grace in this life.
Just as the Israelites were distracted from the true God by worshiping the golden calf (whom they set up as an image to represent Yahweh), so our hearts are distracted from Christ by creating images of him. As the Apostle John writes:
 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.  Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:20–21)
As we grow in love for our Savior, and in the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14), let us keep ourselves from idols!
John Owen, The Glory of Christ: His Office and Grace (1684; repr., London: Christian Heritage, 2004), 43.
Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State (1793; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1964), 100.
G. Duncan Lowe, “Understanding the Psalms as Christian Worship,” in The Board of Education and Publication of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, The Book of Psalms for Worship (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant, 2010), x.
Owen, The Glory of Christ, 47–48.