Book Review: A Taste of Heaven – R.C. Sproul

6 11 2008

Worship is one of the hardest things to define. We recognise it when we see it, fight over styles of it, read about it, write about, but defining it is really hard. Often our disputes over what does and does not constitute worship are about methodology rather than Scripture or Theology. I picked up a copy of this book, care of Reformation trust, in the hope that it would better help me to understand the true nature of worship. When reccomending books on worship I take a cue from David Hume . If a book on worship doesn’t help you to understand worship better or strengthen your resolve to worship God then “commit it to the flames”.
One of my favourite lecturers, Mark Strom, once said that “Fish glorfiy God, not by holding prayer meetings but by being Fish. Human beings Glorify God by getting on with the business of being human” Sproul opens along the same lines saying that fish have an ability to swim right from birth. Its something they do naturally and it is the way they worship God. But worship is not something that always comes naturally to human beings. The effects of sin has meant that we need to learn how to worship God and that true worship must be cultivated.

Many people may have read what Rick Warren had to say about Worship in his book “The Purpose Driven Life”. While I didn’t find the book particularly helpful (or theologically correct but thats a discussion for another day) it did help to break me out of the mindset that worship = the three slow songs we sang after the fast ones. Coming from a pentecostal / charamastic tradition, worship is only considered so if it is spontaneous. What I like about this book is that it showed me that no matter what style of worship we prefer or think is more biblical than another we must remember that these preferences must not become an end in themselves. Our worship of God can be formal or spontaneous. It is a matter of the heart. If our heart is not in it then its an empty ritual no matter how spontaneous it may seem. This was one are I was particularly challenged. Has lifting my hands or spontenaity become a matter of “externalism” for me? Am I just going through the motions? Where are my blind spots when it comes to worship? I’m not advocating morbid introspection but rather a healthy self examination.

God’s feelings aren’t hurt by insincere praise, but neither is He honored by it. God is never honored by flattery. That’s why true worship must be sincere, genuine, and honest.”  (page 40-1)

Think of the gospel. What is your response to what Christ has done for you—Christ, Who spared nothing, Who gave His life for His people, Who made the ultimate sacrifice for His sheep? How do we respond to that? What is the reasonable response?” And Paul says, “Here is your reasonable service or your spiritual worship.” (page 45)

One thing that did concern me was Sprouls idea of the Lords Supper. As a protestant I am not fussed whether we take communion with Coca-Cola, grape juice, or water. To me its an inconsequential detail. He claims that we need to use wine and bread if we want to “truly” worship God because He has consecrated these things. Does that mean all wine and bread are consecrated or does that mean its only consecrated when it enters the church building? What about when it leaves the Church? In most cases its not wise to try and press the Bread and Wine too far. Jesus could have said “Eat of this grape and orange” instead just like Sproul says “Cain could have offered God the shell of a nut and it would have been an acceptable sacrifice”. He then follows that up with some peculiar circumstantial allowances for prisoners in concentration camps. There is a good overview of how it was perceived by the RCC, and the Reformers later in the book. But Sprouls understanding seems a lot more Roman Catholic than protestant. Personally I feel taking communion is a matter of the heart and that the drink and food we have (whatever that may be) is an emblem (which would make me a Zwinglian according to Sproul). I don’t doubt that the Lord is present when take the Lords Supper, but he is also present living within me now. I think we could do with a little less speculation surrounding the Lords supper. Sproul rightly shows that communion is a time when God can and does impart fresh assurance for our salvation. That was a very wise insight from Sproul.

I don’t find much steam for the RCC doctrine of Transubstantiation in scripture, mostly because I wonder what happens after I’ve eaten and drunk of the emblems. That is, what happens when I go to the toilet? Am I ridding my body of the body and blood of Christ? I’m sure many from within my tradition would also disagree with me on my views and thats fine.

The chapters on Baptism helped me understand the reaction of John when Jesus went to be baptised and even more so the reactions of the Pharisees. I was baptised at the young age of 10. Some would say thats too early but I was ready. Now at 25 I understand a lot more about it, but still don’t regret doing it at such a young age. I enjoy seeing others, who have come to faith, baptised. Sproul rightly shows that as circumcision was the sign of the old covenant, and that baptism is the sign of the new covenant. While I wouldn’t advocate a belief in baptismal regeneration I would say it is a very important part of being a Christian. We identify with the dying and rising of Christ. Surprisingly Sproul follows up these comments with a peculiar one We will drown in our sins and will be inundated by the flood of God’s wrath for our apostasy.” (page 82) Which is bewildering to say the least. I had to stop and scratch my head at that one for a bit. I can understand what he means in relation to “Some commentators say…” and baptism, but Sproul could have done more to explain this instead of leaving the believer wondering whether or not they had transgressed or repudiated the new covenant.
Baptism is a controversial topic to say the least, especially when it comes to infant baptism. The case he built for infant baptism was as he said, by inference rather than explicit command. Some of the puzzling conclusions raised, such as the one page 104 Based on the New Testament, there is no doubt that our children have covenant privileges” This only raises further questions about their salvation and the mysterious age of accountability. Clearly the New Testament also emphasises repentance as an essential element of salvation? I have no problem with infant baptism. I have a problem with the confusion it may breed in may congregations. How Children can now be part of the new covenant without repenting of sin is a mystery to me and I would have appreciated some more discussion on this. But there is only so much you can accomplish in such a short book. Each of these chapters could be books in themselves.

I was reminded continually throughout the book that much of what we do in Church as worship to God is symbolic and many of those symbols are continuous with practices in the Old Testament. The Eucharist could be compared to passover, baptism to circumcision, the altar of incense to the corporate prayer and so forth. But they are also discontinuous and it is not wise to press them too far as Sproul says on many occasions. Often as protestants we want to remove all symbolism for fear we are becoming more like Rome. But this need not be so. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I liked his comments on “Formalism” and “Externalism” showing that these symbols became ends in themselves and many times this is what the reformers were reacting against.

The Book contains 13 short chapters and an Epilogue which are devotional in nature. I could imagine using this book for a two week small group study on worship. It certainly gave me a lot to meditate on. Those expecting a complex treatment of worship throughout the whole of a persons life will be dissappointed. The book focuses almost exclusively on Worship within the Church. While not a bad thing, it does tend to be one sided. One thing about devotional books is that they are very quotable. When trying to explain a complex idea, they can help explain the idea generally. Its a short easy read and one well worth reading particularly if you’re a new Christian or just seeking a general idea of how worship should look within the Church. It shouldn’t take you long to read this book. You could probably do it in a few hours. But be careful, its simplicity is deceptive and it will give you some meat to chew over for days to come. I would reccomend taking a chapter a day over two weeks and meditating on it. Theres much to think about in this book, but don’t swallow it all uncritically. Test every conclusion.  There so much more I could go over in this review but I fear its already becoming too long. I guess thats a sign of a good book is that it makes you think and keeps you testing its conclusions. I’ll close with one of the most profound quotes from the book.

“The single most important thing to understand about worship is that the only worship that is acceptable to God is worship that proceeds from a heart that is trusting in God, and in God alone.”
(page 38)

 
 
 
 

 

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