The Gospel in the Prayer Book

THE GOSPEL IN THE PRAYER BOOK

by David N. Samuel

When we consider this subject, we must remember the circumstances in which the Book of Common Prayer was compiled. It took shape in the crucible of the Reformation. A new light had dawned from the Scriptures. That light was the message of salvation which had lain hidden for centuries previously in the dark ages of the Church in Europe.

It is difficult for us today to appreciate what really happened, and how new this all seemed to the Reformers, both on the Continent and here in England. The way of salvation in the Church of the Middle Ages was that of good works. Good works, it was taught, made a good man, made a righteous man. Good works made it possible for you to stand before God and to be accepted by Him. However, in order to do those good works you had to receive grace to strengthen you. Grace, at that time, was thought of as a sort of thing or substance that you received automatically, (ex opere operato), through the sacraments, through baptism, through the mass, through penance, and through the prayers of the saints. It was unlikely that anyone would go directly to heaven because he would not be good enough (only a few, exceptional ‘saints’, might do that), and therefore every baptized Christian would have to spend time, a very considerable time, thousands of years, in purgatory after this life, where his sins would be purged out by fire.

That was broadly the scheme of salvation taught by the medieval Church. Then came the dawn of the Reformation. That dawn came from the great light that shone from the Bible. It was as if a bright light suddenly illuminated a room that had formerly been in darkness. The central message of the Scriptures, which the Reformers discovered, was this: that we are justified by grace, that is, the free mercy of God, and not by our works, not by our merits. We are justified, that is, declared righteous before God, by grace through faith alone, not by works, lest any man should boast.

This is the great emphasis of the New Testament. The Reformers rediscovered it. They found, by reading the New Testament in Greek, that “to be justified” does not mean “to be made righteous in ourselves”, which is what the Latin translations seemed to imply, but rather “to be counted righteous” before God, for the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. That put an entirely different complexion on things. “He [that is Christ] is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). At the heart of the Gospel message is the concept of “the great exchange”. Christ, as the innocent and righteous One, came into the world to take our place as the guilty, condemned sinner and we, by the mercy and free grace of God, take His place, and are seen in the eyes of God as justified and righteous.

Let me quote from a passage by Martin Luther in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians which, I think, sets this forth so vividly:

“The doctrine of the Gospel speaketh nothing of our works or of the works of the Law, but of the inestimable mercy and love of God towards most wretched and miserable sinners; that our most merciful Father sent His only Son into the world and laid upon Him all the sins of all men, saying, ‘Be Thou Peter that denier, Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor, that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise, that thief hanged upon the cross; briefly be Thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men. See, therefore, that Thou pay and satisfy for them.’ Now cometh the Law and saith: I find Him a sinner, One that hath taken upon Him the sins of all men, and I see no sins but in Him, therefore let Him die upon the cross; and so it setteth upon Him and killeth Him. By this means the whole world is purged. God would see nothing else in the whole world, if it did believe, but a mere cleansing and righteousness.”

Now that is the Gospel as set forth in the Scriptures, especially in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians. That is the Gospel that our Reformers, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, also rediscovered in the Bible: “The Lord our Righteousness”, for we have no righteousness of our own. “He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). This is the robe of Christ’s imputed righteousness, counted to us who are sinners. We are still sinners even when we are saved, we are still sinners in ourselves, but we are righteous in the sight of God, because Christ’s righteousness is credited or imputed to us by faith.

Now that is the teaching of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and of the Book of Common Prayer. When Cranmer and the other Reformers found afresh this teaching in the Bible, they incorporated it into the official teaching of the Church of England. Article 11 Of the Justification of Man, which is one of the fundamental articles, on which hinges the doctrine of the Church of England, as reformed and catholic, states,

“We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.”

If you refer to the Book of Homilies, you will find that the title is in fact not the Homily of Justification, but the Homily of Salvation. Did Cranmer make a mistake in calling it the Homily of Justification? No, but by so naming it he intended to show that salvation is justification by faith, and justification by faith is salvation. They are one and the same thing. Justification by faith is not a part of what it means to be saved, but the whole thing. Justification by faith is not just the entrance or beginning of the Christian’s life, it is the whole of it from beginning to end.

Iain Murray, in his biography of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, writes that on one of the last occasions he saw Dr Lloyd-Jones, when he was dying, he said to Mr Murray: “I am nothing but an old sinner saved by grace.” He was quoting the words of Daniel Rowlands, which underline this experience of the saints, that salvation is of grace, through faith, from beginning to end.

This salvation which was effected by our Lord Jesus Christ – by His perfect life of obedience to the will of God, and by His death upon the cross, when He answered not for His own sins (for He had none), but for our sins – this objective work of redemption must be subjectively appropriated by us. We must make it our own. But how are we to do that? By repentance, by turning from sin, by turning from our own works, however good we might think them to be, and trusting wholly in Christ, in His righteousness and atoning death. “He that glorieth,” says the apostle, “let him glory in the Lord” 1 Corinthians 1:31. If a man thinks he has any good works in which to glory, it is clear he is still trusting in himself. Let him rather trust in the Lord. So faith and repentance mean turning away from ourselves. Faith is turning wholly to Christ and cleaving to Him, and holding fast to Him alone as Saviour and Lord.

We might define faith as a recumbency, that is, leaning upon something with the confidence that it will support you, and hold you up. This is what the believer does when he trusts in Jesus Christ. And what ultimately is this repentance and faith? From whence does it come? Well, it is the work of God’s Holy Spirit, it is not “of ourselves”; it is the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our hearts. He alone can quicken dead souls. “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins…” (Ephesians 2:1). “He has made us alive, “together with Christ.”

Those who are spiritually dead cannot exercise repentance or faith, because they are spiritually dead. But the Holy Spirit gives them new spiritual life. He regenerates them, gives them the new life of God; opens their eyes, the eyes of their understanding. They see the Lord Jesus Christ in all His beauty and desirability (something which they had never recognised before) and they turn from themselves and fly to Him for refuge.

So faith is not a mere intellectual assent of the mind. It is that, it is true. But it is much more. It is a trust and confidence in Jesus Christ and His power to save. If we have this living faith in our hearts, then it will express itself in good works, in the way we live. The Bible teaches us that good works are the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Whereas before a man was regenerated, before he was changed in this way by the grace of God, he found the Commandments of God irksome and hard; now he has a desire to please God and to do His will and walk in His ways.

Now that is very briefly a sketch of what the Gospel – the Good News – according to Scripture is. Where do we find it in the Prayer Book? Well, we find it throughout the Prayer Book, everywhere in the Prayer Book, because the Reformers were Bible men, and their great desire was to see this doctrine of justification by faith alone, this Biblical teaching of salvation, expressed throughout the liturgy. A noted liturgiologist, (who was not an evangelical), said some time ago that the service of the Lord’s Supper, or the Holy Communion, in the Book of Common Prayer, was the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. What we find in the Holy Communion service, we may expect to find throughout the whole of the Book of Common Prayer. Let me, then, attempt to illustrate this great doctrine of salvation in terms of the Prayer Book generally.

Let us begin with Holy Scripture. The light of truth and saving grace dawned upon the minds of the Reformers from the Bible, and they were, therefore, confident of this one thing: that if salvation was to be expressed through the liturgy, then the Book of Common Prayer had to contain a great deal of the Bible, indeed, all of the Bible. We “born again,” says the apostle Peter, “not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” (1 Peter 1:23). Our Reformers wanted to see a living Church of England, one that was spiritually alive. How could they help to bring that about, but through the instrumentality of the Word of God, the Scriptures? Those Scriptures had to be incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer.

Now in the Middle Ages not much attention was paid to the Scriptures in worship. We know that, in particular, from Cranmer’s witty introduction to the Prayer Book, entitled Concerning the Service of the Church. In that essay he wrote this:

“But these many years passed, this godly and decent order [of reading through the books of the Bible] of the ancient Fathers hath been so altered, broken, and neglected, by planting in uncertain Stories, and Legends, with multitude of Responds, Verses, vain Repetitions, Commemorations, and Synodals; that commonly when any Book of the Bible was begun, after three or four chapters were read out, all the rest were unread.”

Then he went on to say, as you will remember, that rather amusing thing: “Moreover, the number and hardness of the Rules called the Pie, and the manifold changings of the Service, was the cause, that to turn the Book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out”. Such was the intricacy of the medieval services! Such was their neglect of the Scriptures! But Cranmer was determined to restore the Bible to the services in an intelligent and intelligible way. He arranged that the Old Testament should be read through once in the course of the year, and the New Testament twice. The Psalms would be read through every month. Besides that, the Canticles in Morning and Evening Prayer, and the verses and responses are all taken out of Holy Scripture, with just one or two exceptions.

Therefore, we might say that the Book of Common Prayer is as full of the Bible as an egg is of meat. In this way the Reformers sought to ensure that the living Word of God was brought to the people in the parishes, for they knew and believed, that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Perhaps there is no better and more lovely collect than that of Advent II for expressing this truth.

“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.”

So that was the first object of the Reformers; to see that the Scriptures were there in the liturgy of the church. Without the Scriptures the services of the church are of no use in bringing the knowledge of salvation to the people; and without the knowledge of salvation, how can they truly worship and serve God?

Secondly, Repentance. As I have already mentioned, a proper understanding of the nature of repentance is a necessary part of our salvation. We must recognise and acknowledge the sinfulness and wickedness of our hearts. We dare not minimise our sins before God, nor cover them over lightly. If we are superficial in the way that we deal with ourselves, and if we do not understand the gravity of sin, and its seriousness in the sight of God then, of course, there is no hope of our being saved by the grace of God. And so the liturgy, if it is to be a Gospel liturgy and faithful to the Bible’s teaching, must set out our sins in their true colours, so that we see clearly what sort of people we are in the sight of a holy God. That, indeed, the Prayer Book does most faithfully, especially, of course, in the Confession that we have in Morning and Evening Prayer: “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep…, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us”. That means there is no soundness, no wholeness in us at all. That is what we must confess when we come before God, for that is our true condition, morally and spiritually. It is clearly described for us in the Scriptures, which tell us that “all we like sheep have gone astray”, (Isaiah 53:6) and, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10), and all that is clearly and faithfully reflected in the Prayer Book.

The modern services which have been introduced in recent years are far too superficial and inadequate in this respect. The confessions are brief and perfunctory. The reasons for this are many, but pervading them is undoubtedly a misunderstanding of the nature of worship which is common today. Modern people are taught to think of worship as a species of therapy, they seek emotional satisfaction, and consequently they concentrate on themselves rather than God. The Prayer Book does the very opposite; it concentrates our minds upon God; and that is because it follows the Scriptures which are God-centred rather than man-centred.

It is worth recalling that the confession was something new in our Prayer Book when Cranmer compiled it. In the preceding services of the church there was no confession, such as we have in the 1662 book. It was first introduced by Cranmer in 1552, and we have the same confession and absolution now in the services of the 1662 book. This penitential note is reflected also in the Holy Communion service.

How does the service of Holy Communion begin? Well, as you know, it begins with the Collect for Purity: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid”. It invites us immediately to look within our own hearts, to see ourselves spiritually as in the sight of God, as He views us. Later, we go on to the full confession, in the Communion service, and say, “The remembrance [of our sins] is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.” There are people today who say it is unnecessary to speak like that, because they do not feel their sins to be an intolerable burden. The answer is, “Well you should; that is how you ought to feel, if you were spiritually alive and truly understood your condition, and viewed your offences in the sight of God and His holiness.”

These confessions that we are invited to make in the Prayer Book services are not intended to be mere formalities. The words in which we are invited to confess make that very clear. We are bidden to come with “a humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart”; and if the Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts, if He has opened our eyes to see ourselves as we truly are, we shall understand that we are lost, miserable, helpless sinners in God’s sight, and that we must turn to Him for grace and salvation.

Thirdly, the Declaration of Forgiveness of Sins. This too is clearly set out in the Prayer Book, and it is done by setting forth for us the Lord Jesus Christ in all His attractiveness and beauty, as the all-sufficient Saviour of men and women, who by His death has purged our sins, and reconciled us to God. We find all this most gloriously set out for us in the Holy Communion Service, especially in the prayer of consecration, in the words, “Who made there, [that is, upon the cross], (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”. An all-sufficient Saviour who meets every need of sinful men and women!

We find this truth again compellingly set forth in the ‘comfortable words’ of the Holy Communion Service. After the absolution there are four quotations from Holy Scripture, called the ‘comfortable words’. They are put in that place in order to reassure us, to impress upon us, that it is by the Word of God, received in faith, that we are absolved from our sins, when we have come and have truly repented, and turned to God with all our heart, then we hear these words assuring us of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and that He has indeed blotted out our sins, and has set them as far from us as the east is from the west.

Listen to one of these sentences, “This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. These words are forever associated in my mind with Thomas Bilney. He was called ‘Little Bilney’. He was a man from Norfolk and was a Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in the early days of the Reformation in England. He was a man who was not at peace with God, but he found peace. He found it through reading the New Testament, in the recently published, elegant translation into Latin by Erasmus. His eyes lighted upon these words: “This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The truth came home to his heart. He was at peace with God. He was saved, and he was instrumental in bringing about the conversion also of Hugh Latimer, the greatest preacher of the English Reformation, indeed, possibly in the English Church of all time.

We find the Gospel of God’s grace and forgiveness set forth so clearly and plainly, and so authoritatively in the very words of Scripture in the Book of Common Prayer. There are some beautiful words in the Litany, which set out the sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation.

“By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation, by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us. By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord deliver us.”

When those words were read out in the Parish Church of Llangeitho, in the eighteenth century, by the curate, Daniel Rowlands, there was an intense feeling, something almost electric in the congregation, and there came a sense of the grace and mercy of God upon the people present. Daniel Rowlands, himself, broke down at the reading desk. That was part of the great awakening of religion in this country in the eighteenth century.

Charles Simeon, the Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, used to say that he never felt nearer to heaven than when he was at the reading desk, reading the liturgy of the Church of England. So you see how the Prayer Book sets out the fullness of the Gospel of the grace of God and the remission of sins, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Fourthly, Faith. We have said that although Christ accomplished an objective salvation for us upon the cross, we need to appropriate it; that is, we need to make it our own by faith, by laying hold upon the promises of Scripture, and thereby personally appropriating the benefits of Christ’s death upon the cross. Our Lord, when He yielded His spirit up upon the cross, did not die involuntarily, in the sense that He was compelled to die. He died as an act of priestly offering. He was active in His death. He did not die passively upon the cross. When He died He said, “It is finished.” He offered Himself for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world.

We must respond to that by resting upon His finished and completed work of redemption. That is the very nature of faith. Faith is a recumbency, a resting, a leaning upon Christ, knowing that He will sustain and support you. The Book of Common Prayer gives us ample opportunity actively to exercise that faith. We have the three great creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, said in Morning and Evening Prayer; the Nicene Creed, said in the Holy Communion Service; and the Athanasian Creed, said on Trinity Sunday. All these are opportunities publicly to express our faith.

Notice the point in the service at which the Apostles’ Creed comes – after hearing the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments. The Word of God’s salvation has been read, declared to us; then we stand, and together make a corporate response of faith – “I believe in God the Father Almighty… And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord… I believe in the Holy Ghost…” By faith we appropriate and claim all the blessings of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, accomplished by His death and resurrection.

Again, if you look carefully at the Canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer, you will see the opportunities afforded for the response of faith to God’s Word, particularly in the Song of Simeon, and the Nunc Dimittis, for example. Think of Simeon, who was an aged man and who had been waiting in the Temple at Jerusalem for “the consolation of Israel”. He had been waiting and expecting the coming of the Messiah, who would redeem God’s people, when Mary and Joseph came into the Temple with the child Jesus. Simeon took the child in his arms and said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.” Here was a man who took Christ in his arms and received the Redeemer and Saviour of the world. Now think of this: when we have heard the Word of God’s salvation read in the New Testament lesson, we can join together in the very same words of Simeon, and make our response of faith to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, His Son our Saviour. We also can say, “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” We can make that response of faith which Simeon made, and receive Christ as our own Saviour.

Fifthly, and lastly, Good Works. Good works are essential to the Christian life but, as I said at the beginning, their place in the order of salvation is after repentance and faith. They are the fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Until we have received the Holy Spirit we cannot do any good works, nor anything that is pleasing in God’s sight. “A good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit: neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit… A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good: and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:43 & 45). First, the tree must be made good, if it is to bear good fruit (Matthew 12:33). And so also the life of the individual must be renovated and made good by grace, if he is to do works pleasing to God. So, when we have experienced God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ, and know what repentance and faith in Christ mean, then, in the order of salvation, there is the place for good works. And these good works in the life of the believer are not to justify him before God, for that they simply cannot do. There are still many faults that cling to him and to his works. But they are the outward signs of an inward renovation. They are an expression of the grace of God at work in the life of the believer, and evidence to others of the justification we have received by faith in Jesus Christ.

Now we find this teaching expressed throughout the whole of the Book of Common Prayer. Take, for example, Morning and Evening Prayer. In the words of the absolution we read: “Wherefore, we beseech him [Almighty God] to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy.” And in the Litany, “That it may please thee to give to all thy people increase of grace, to hear meekly thy Word, and to receive it with pure affection, and to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit.” And at the conclusion of the post-communion prayer in the Lord’s Supper we say, “that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.”

So you see, the Book of Common Prayer is full of the grace and salvation of God. It expresses clearly the Biblical Gospel, the Gospel of justification by grace through faith alone. The Book of Common Prayer is no random sequence of prayers and devotions, but through it all, undergirding it, informing it, and structuring it, is the Gospel of the free grace of God to us, in Jesus Christ. As a body is supported by its frame, by the bones, by the skeleton, which give it shape, beauty and strength; so it is with the Book of Common Prayer and its Biblical doctrines. It is the doctrines of grace that give it its real beauty, strength, and power. I am fully aware that it is composed in very beautiful language, and this has a special appeal, but its real strength and beauty, its lasting power, reside in the doctrine that informs and shapes it. The Book of Common Prayer and the true message of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ are closely and inseparably conjoined.