In teaching on mercy ministry in Reformed settings, I often use the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) to make a point. The RPW teaches that we are only to worship God as He commands us to do so in Scripture. In considering matters of worship, many Reformed Christians, rightly so, insist on regulating carefully by the Word of God what takes place in the church’s worship of God.
So as I address mercy and worship, I like to say there is another RPW. Not only must we be careful to regulate our worship according to God’s Word, but we must also be diligent to insure that God’s Word is regulating us, especially in the area of mercy. Repeatedly, God’s Word emphasizes as we come into His presence that He is examining us to see if we are caring for the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan as we ought. Just two samples among dozens that could be given:
God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers. How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:1-4)
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world…I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 1:27; 2:18)
Indeed, on the final Day of the Lord, the Son of Man will divide the nations of the earth into two groups. He will then eternally bless or curse them, depending on whether or not they demonstrated a mercy-filled faith by visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked (Matthew 25:31-40). This final Day of the Lord is to be proceeded by many weekly days of the Lord, or Lord’s Days, where we examine our lives to make sure that we who have been shown mercy by Christ are in turn showing mercy to others.
To emphasize further that Reformed worship is to be mercy-filled worship, I like to point out that the Westminster Directory of Publick Worship of God (WDPW) makes several prominent statements to this end.
A historic practice among Reformed churches has been to use Lord’s Supper celebrations as a time to remember the poor. Special offerings and prayers would be made during these services for the poor. The WDPW directed the churches in this way.
The collection for the poor is so to be ordered, that no part of the publick worship be thereby hindered.” -Of the Celebration of the Communion, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
The WDPW also addresses using the Lord’s Day for works of mercy. This commentary is so helpful, especially since the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) can be misunderstood in its teaching about mercy on the Lord’s Day. In Question 60, in asking how the Sabbath is to be sanctified, the WSC encourages spending the day in worship “except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” This “exception clause” can be understood as if doing works of mercy are in competition with worship, or works of mercy can be viewed, with their linkage grammatically with works of necessity, as interruptions to the true intent of the day. However, this cannot be how the exception clause is to be viewed, for notice how the WDPW expresses that works of mercy are a vital aspect of keeping the Lord’s Day.
That what time is vacant, between or after the solemn meetings of the congregation in publick, be spent in reading, meditation, repetition of sermons; especially by calling their families to an account of what they have heard, and catechising of them, holy conferences, prayer for a blessing upon the publick ordinances, singing of psalms, visiting the sick, relieving the poor, and such like duties of piety, charity, and mercy, accounting the sabbath a delight.” – Of the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day
In another section, in speaking of special services of thanksgiving or fasting, the WDPW again emphasizes the need for caring for the needy.
At one or both of the publick meetings that day, a collection is to be made for the poor, (and in the like manner upon the day of publick humiliation,) that their loins may bless us, and rejoice the more with us.” –Concerning the Observation of Days of Publick Thanksgiving
The phrase “that their loins may bless us”, a bit strange to our modern ears, is actually quite powerful in its sentiment. The WDPW means here that the coming generations of those poor folks, who have seen the mercies of the Lord demonstrated to them by the care of the church, might join the church in the true worship of God.
May the Lord be pleased to reform our worship to that glorious end!