Three Presbyterian Convictions: Psalms, Sabbath, & the Rejection of Images
Within wider Christianity, Presbyterians are often labeled—and sometimes dismissed—as traditionalists. This label may seem to explain some aspects of Presbyterian piety, but not all.
When Christians outside of Reformed circles learn about the Presbyterian passion for singing Psalms, keeping Sabbath, and rejecting images of Christ, they begin to recognize that something more than traditionalism is taking place. These quirky practices do not arise from traditionalist nostalgia for “the good old days,” but from deeply formed biblical and confessional convictions.
Even within the PCA, many argue that our idiosyncrasies in these areas are peripheral, debatable, optional, and not fundamental to our system of doctrine. Why, then, do confessional Presbyterians put so much weight on such peculiar practices?
As I have personally wrestled with those questions, what most clarified my understanding was to identify the focal point of biblical piety. In The Glory of Christ, the last book that John Owen wrote before his death in 1683, Owen captured the heart of piety as seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6):
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.
What Owen identifies here is that we cannot measure our piety by what we can physically see according to outward appearances. As he draws out through the rest of the book, Christian piety is (1) biblical, (2) spiritual (i.e., by the Spirit), and (3) invisible (i.e., by faith).
In this article, I want to make a biblical case that what we confess about Psalms, Sabbath, and images of Christ may be quirky, but that these issues are nevertheless central to Presbyterian piety. While we cannot exhaustively treat every objection to these practices, my hope is to build a positive vision for how they can help us to treasure Christ more in our denomination, our churches, our homes, and especially our own hearts.
Singing Psalms is probably the least controversial issue of the three, since the New Testament explicitly commands us to sing Psalms (Eph. 5:19). While the PCA has never embraced exclusive Psalmody (BCO 51-1), we have also never justified excluding Psalmody altogether (BCO 51-3; WCF 21.5).
Few (if any) would argue against singing Psalms in theory. Nevertheless, Psalms are often excluded in practice. To modern people, the lyrics of the Psalms are foreign, and the tunes of metric Psalters are dated. By outward appearances, it can be difficult to justify squeezing a Psalm into Sunday’s order of worship.
By faith, however, we know that the Psalms possess invisible power as the Spirit-inspired Word of God. The Psalms are not one set of songs among many. These are God’s words that he uses to open our eyes to see Christ’s (invisible) reign and rule, and to reform us in the “anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”
Other songs may feel more comfortable, but God uses the Psalms to conform us to Christ.
The Lord declares that his Sabbath is a sign—that is, a visible symbol that points to something else. In this case, the sign of the Sabbath points to something that is invisible: “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” (Ex. 31:13).
Notice that the Sabbath is not a sign to signal our virtue: “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like the people who don’t keep the Sabbath!” The Sabbath is not about what we do for God, but about what God does for us to work in us that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
God teaches us to delight in him by training us to delight in the Sabbath (Isa. 58:13–14). Every Lord’s Day, we rest from our worldly employments and recreations and devote the whole day to worship so that God may reorient our hearts toward the Sabbath rest yet to come for the people of God (Heb. 4:9).
The flesh chokes on this spiritual delicacy of the Sabbath, wearied under the weight of glory and greedy to gorge on the pleasures of the world (Amos 8:5).
To the spiritual, however, the Sabbath is a delight because the Lord is our delight—now and forevermore. We do not deprive ourselves of joy on the Lord’s Day, even though we set aside material, visible, and earthly pleasures. Instead, we delight ourselves with spiritual, invisible, and heavenly joy in the Lord. The Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27)!
As the great hymn proclaims about the Sabbath, “From Thee, like Pisgah’s mountain / We view our promised land” (see Deut. 34:1–4). Each Sabbath gives us a glimpse of what God is invisibly doing to work out our salvation for his good pleasure.
Rejecting Images of Christ
Perhaps no aspect of Presbyterian piety is so controversial as our rejection of all images of Christ. Why should we deprive our children of illustrated children’s Bibles or nativity sets that depict Jesus? What’s the harm with art that portrays our Savior in the various scenes of his earthly ministry? Even in the PCA, Westminster Larger Catechism #109 does not enjoy universal affirmation.
Yet, as John Owen observed in the quotation at the beginning of this article, the Scriptures constantly distinguish between two ways of beholding Christ’s glory. Paradoxically, we reject images of Christ because of our high regard for seeing Christ.
By rejecting images of Christ, we are not denying that Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:3). Furthermore, we are not denying that he was manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16; 1 John 4:2), so that he was seen, touched, and gazed upon by those around him (1 John 1:1–2). Indeed, we affirm as essential to our faith that our resurrected Savior appeared to more than five hundred people (1 Cor. 15:5–6). Even more, we insist that men, women, and children must behold the glory of the Lord in order to be saved (2 Cor. 3:14–4:6).
What we reject, though, are any attempts to see him by (physical) sight now. When Christ ascended into heaven, angels warned the apostles not to continue “looking into heaven,” since they must await the day when Jesus will return just as they “saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). We stand now between those two glorious manifestations of Christ in his estate of exaltation: first at his ascension, and again at his return.
Until he comes again, Christ is teaching his people to see him in his invisible, spiritual glory. Images only distract us from that glory. Instead, as we behold Christ’s glory in the Word and by faith, the Holy Spirit is transforming us from one degree of glory to another in order to prepare us to behold Christ’s glory by sight (2 Cor. 3:18). And when he appears, this process of transforming us to Christ’s image through our vision of him will be brought to its completion: “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). As Owen wrote, “Grace is a necessary preparation for glory.”
Today, we have a glorious, albeit invisible, vision of Christ through faith. On the last day, we will forevermore enjoy something far more glorious: “the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity” (WLC 90).
Until then, “little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
Behold Your God!
Judged by external appearances, our uninspired music sounds more meaningful than Psalms, our pleasure feels more desirable than Sabbath, and our images of Christ seem more satisfying than the Word. For this reason, reclaiming these unique treasures of the PCA’s spiritual heritage will require us to learn to see the glory of Christ in the simple, ordinary means of grace more clearly than we do in any outwardly impressive substitutes (WCF 7.6).
So, let us read God’s Word with the conviction that his pure commandments enlighten the eyes (Ps. 19:8). In our preaching, let us remember that we are publicly portraying Christ as crucified before the eyes of those who hear (Gal. 3:1). In our prayers, let us not cease to plead that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened (Eph. 1:18). When we attend the Table of the Lord, let us diligently pray that we will taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8).
We must not only contend that we should preserve the quirks of our piety, but also why these practices are so vital. Accordingly, as we gather each Lord’s Day for worship, our task is to teach God’s people to see what their eyes cannot perceive: “Behold your God!” (Isa. 40:9).
(This article was adapted from a longer version.)
 John Owen, The Glory of Christ: His Office and Grace (1684; repr., London: Christian Heritage, 2004), 43.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), xxxvii.