The Old Testament’s “Deuteronomy Glasses”
Most Old Testament scholars point to the book of Deuteronomy as one of the most significant books in that part of the canon. It sums up the entire Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT), and it is the lens through which many of the other books–especially the historical books and the prophets–were written and heard by their original hearers. In fact, some scholars are so convinced by Deuteronomy’s influence that they call Joshua – 2 Kings the “Deuteronomistic History.”
Deuteronomy’s prevailing mantra is, “Remember…do not forget.” In English, “remember” is used 16 times in the book, overwhelmingly as a command for the people of God to not forget what God did when He redeemed them out of the bondage of Egypt (see esp. Deut 24). The OT historical books and prophets are the painful recounting of Israel’s checkered past of not remembering, re-remembering, then forgetting again.
One of the main reasons God set up the liturgical system He did (sacrifices, priestly duties, annual worship calendar) was to provide rituals that burned into the hearts, minds, and souls of the people of God His salvation-story, precisely because He knew that their forgetfulness would be their own doom. God’s liturgy, rightly enacted and wholeheartedly engaged, was intended as preventative medicine against the amnesia of the people of God. Put another way, God established the rhythms of worship to help us remember who we are.
Worship as Covenant Renewal
It seems that a lot of evangelicals are confused, mystified, or downright spooked by the notion of worship as “covenant renewal.” I was reminded of this in some of the comment-chains following a recent post I wrote on The Gospel Coalition’s new worship site. But worship as covenant renewal, in its most basic form, is nothing more than what has been articulated above–renewing and remembering God’s covenant with us in Jesus Christ.
Christ’s Church is no different than Israel of old. We are stiff-necked, hard-hearted, forgetful people. Between Sundays, we fight the entropy and devolution that lingering sin propels. One of the best answers I’ve ever heard as to why Christians continue to sin is that we fall into sin when we forget who we are–dearly bought, highly esteemed, adopted children of the Most High, Triune God of all ages. Good worship serves to jog our memories about our identity in Christ.
This immediately forces questions about both the content and the structure of our worship. Many things follow. I’ll name three:
1. We realize that it’s important to place so much more emphasis on God’s character, promises, and work, and so much less emphasis on our feelings toward God.
Remembering who we are is based on who God declares we are in Christ. This is an external action, spoken over and onto us from outside of us, and then planted in us by the “alien invader” known as the Holy Spirit. Worship sets and songs which are dominated by how we feel about God do little, then, to help us remember who we are and avoid amnesia. Singing and speaking our (even felt) response to God has its place, but it must not dominate worship’s form and content. When it does, our memory will slip away.
2. We realize that we need to be explicit about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The core of God’s covenant with us is the person and work of Jesus Christ. The more explicit we make this news, the better. We can’t be too heavy-handed in remembering Christ’s righteous life and His sacrificial death. We need the gospel to slap us in the face, punch us in the gut, kick us in the behind, knock us in the knees, and sweep us at the ankles. We need a grace-assault that leaves no part of ourselves untouched. We are stubborn and calloused. Nothing short of a knockout in the first round will do. We need to sing about it, pray it, read it, preach it, taste it, see it, hear it, and feel it.
3. We realize that ritualistic repetition is important and formative.
Suddenly, we realize that God’s OT strategy of engaging in repetitive ritual wasn’t just for our ancient brothers and sisters. Fixed ritual (calls to worship, confessions of sin, assurances of God’s pardon, etc.), especially the kind that causes our weary bones to stumble through the gospel story, begins to shape our subconscious, affecting the way relate to God the other six days of the week. Soon, we see Gospel-patterns more easily emerge from our instincts in the way we engage God and others on Tuesday, when we’ve sinned and sought forgiveness. That process is the very process of remembering. Our amnesia has been thwarted.