By Ryan M. McGraw
I shall set forth briefly the glory and the beauty of biblical worship by examining from Scripture the purpose of worship, the principles of worship, the manner of worship, and then by drawing some doctrinal and practical conclusions.
The Purpose of Worship
The purpose of worship is to glorify the Triune God. This is the purpose for which we were created. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked in fellowship with God in the Garden in the “cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). Even prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve set aside one whole day in seven in order to rest from their God-given labors to worship and commune with God exclusively on the Sabbath (Gen. 2:3). The essence of their fall into sin was refusing to worship God or to “glorify Him as God” (Rom. 1:21). Instead of loving and humbly trusting in and submitting to His Word, they believed the lie of Satan and they set up their own judgment and will in the place of God’s. The purpose of our redemption in Jesus Christ is not merely to redeem our souls from the guilt and power of sin, but to seek people who will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:24). Through a simple trust in His promises, the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ enables us to draw near to God in worship through “reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28). In heaven, the original purpose of our creation shall be perfectly restored. We shall join with the twenty-four elders and an innumerable company of angels, with whom we shall worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit day and night without ceasing (Rev. 4-5).
When we think about worship, it is important to remember how we approach God. In Ephesians 2:18, the Apostle Paul provides and excellent summary: “through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.” This was the great Puritan theologian John Owen’s chosen text when he decided to preach upon the topic of corporate worship. Why did he choose a text in which the term worship was not even mentioned? The reason is that when we come to God in corporate worship, we must remember how we come to God in general. Corporate worship is the reason for our original creation, our highest privilege as Christians, and the highest goal of our redemption. Perhaps the greatest blessing of the gospel is to call upon God the Father as our God and our Father. “As many as received Him, to them he gave the right to be become the children of God” (Jn. 1:12). “Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the children of God!” (1 Jn. 3:1). Yet no one comes to the Father except by means of the Son (Jn. 14:6). In turn, no one confesses that Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 12:3). Whenever we approach God, we always approach the Father through faith in Jesus Christ, by the regenerating and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This means that every communication of grace and fellowship from God to us comes through “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14). Ephesians 2:18 shows how we in turn approach God: by the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father. Every exchange between God and your soul recognizes that the God whom you worship and serve is Triune.
The purpose of our worship is to glorify and to enjoy the Triune God, but we can do this by means of His Word alone. The promise and love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the work of the Holy Spirit come to our souls by means of Holy Scripture. In Romans 10:14-17, the Apostle Paul asked a series of questions demonstrating our dependence upon the Word of God for salvation: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? . . . So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” Without the Scriptures, we would be “without Christ . . . having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). We are more dependent upon the Word of God for the lives of our souls than we are upon the food that is necessary for the lives of our bodies (Ps. 119). Without the Scriptures, we could not approach God through faith in Christ, since we would know neither Christ nor the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, without the Scriptures, worship would be impossible as well. If we cannot know God apart from His Word, if we are ignorant of His will and of His nature due to our sins, and if His Word alone teaches us how to approach Him and to serve Him, then should we not assume that His Word alone can teach us how we should worship Him?
When we gather together as a Church to worship the Triune God corporately, He manifests His presence in a peculiarly glorious manner. Christ promises that where two or three are gathered together in His name, He is there in our midst (Matt. 18:20). Just as the Lord manifested Himself in his holy temple as He did in no other place on earth, so now He manifests himself most gloriously in His spiritual temple, which is comprised of living stones (1 Pet. 2:4-5). When the Church is gathered for corporate worship, even the non-believer shall fall on his face saying, “God is truly among you” (1 Cor. 12:25). For this reason, the Puritan minister David Clarkson once preached a famous sermon entitled, “Public Worship is to be Preferred Before Private.”
The Principles of Worship
The Scriptural principle of worship has often been referred to as the Regulative Principle of Worship. The Westminster Confession of Faith contains a classic statement of this principle: “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations or devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (WCF 21.1). Another way to state this principle is to say: “Whatever God commands must be done. Whatever God forbids must not be done. Whatever God is silent about must not be done.”
This principle governing corporate worship is rooted in the Second Commandment. As Jesus demonstrated in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-26), each of the Ten Commandments is a subject heading which sets forth one example of a sin or duty that serves as the prototype of all similar sins and duties in the same category. “You shall not kill,” for Him meant that we must not harbor unjustified anger in our hearts, we must guard our speech, and we must pursue reconciliation with others. The first four commandments summarize our duties with respect to worship. The first commandment addresses the uniqueness of God as the object of worship. The second commandment is concerned with the form or manner in which we must worship God. The third commandment singles out our attitude towards the object of our worship. The fourth commandment designates the particular time that should be set aside exclusively for worship. By forbidding the worship of God by means of images, God is implicitly forbidding the worshiping of Him by any other way not appointed in His Word.
Deuteronomy 12:29-32 is a handy summary of the principles implied in the Second Commandment: “When the Lord cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them . . . that you do not inquire after their gods saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise. You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” God’s people must not only refrain from worshiping other God’s, but they must not worship the Lord their God in the same manner that the nations worship their gods. The point is that the manner of God’s worship is limited to His revealed will. The culture around us has nothing to teach us concerning the worship of our God. To demonstrate this, God pointed to the horrific practice of child sacrifice in pagan worship in order to illustrate the depths of the blindness of the human heart when it comes to the worship of God. The Regulative Principle of Worship, as it is stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, is virtually a paraphrase of this passage.
This principle of worship is not relegated to the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the Second Commandment demanded animal sacrifices, temple worship, holy-days, and a priesthood. In the New Testament, the external forms of worship have passed away because they have been fulfilled through the Person and work of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 9-10), but the principle governing worship remains intact. On one occasion, Jesus criticized the Pharisees with respect to their service to God saying, “In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9). The outward form of worship differ in the Old and New Testaments, but worship always has been and always shall be in vain whenever any aspect of it is based upon the commandments or ideas of men rather than upon the Word of God. In Colossians, the Apostle Paul referred to such practices as “self-imposed religion.” “These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom . . . but they are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Col.2:23). On the other hand, to state these truths positively, when we limit our practices of worship to what God has revealed in Scripture, we have the joy and assurance of knowing that He shall accept our worship because He has chosen the way in which we ought to approach Him.
The Regulative Principle of Worship means that we ask what pleases God in our worship rather than what pleases the unbeliever. Dr. Joseph Pipa has illustrated this point vividly. On one occasion he was invited to a birthday party for a Dutch grandmother (“Oma”). Her party was marked by Dutch songs, Dutch foods, and Dutch customs that were foreign to Dr. Pipa. If the family changed the songs, foods, and customs in order to appeal to Dr. Pipa instead of Oma, then the question becomes, “Is the party for Oma, or for Dr. Pipa?” The Regulative Principle of Worship means that God’s likes and dislikes are the only ones that matter in our worship.
The Manner of Worship
This discussion raises the question, “What does New Testament worship look like?” The primary characteristic of New Testament worship is simplicity. Old Testament worship was complex, filled with many types and shadows by which the Person, work, and offices of the Christ who was to come were depicted (Col. 2:17). According to this passage, Christ was the body that was casting the shadow. When the body is present, then the shadow becomes obsolete. New Testament worship is Old Testament worship with all of its temporary elements removed. Instead of the complexity and external beauty of the temple, we have retained the Word centered simplicity of the synagogue. The glory of New Testament worship does not lie in ornate buildings, ostentatious clerical vestments, incense, sacrifices, dance, or drama, but in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ by His Word and Spirit. A simplified and more spiritual worship is suited to a simplified and more spiritual age. Our citizenship lies in heaven (Phil. 3:20), our lives are hidden there with Christ in God (Col. 3:3), and in our worship we are lifted up into heaven by the power of the Spirit as we enjoy fellowship with God along with an innumerable company of angels (Heb. 12:22-23). When we use the God-ordained elements of public worship, through faith in the promises of His presence, then we have discovered the true glory of biblical worship.
Our worship should not only be formed according to Scripture, but Scripture should be its basic content and characteristic. To borrow Terry Johnson’s description: “in worship we pray the Bible, sing the Bible, read the Bible, and preach the Bible and see the Bible (in the Sacraments)” (Reformed Worship, 34). If Sacraments are subsumed under preaching the Word, then every element of worship required by God falls under these four headings (the only exception being our corporate confession of faith, but we are commanded to do this in Scripture and our confession must be based upon Scripture). God has commanded the preaching of His Word by God-ordained officers (Rom. 10:14-17; 2 Tim. 4:2). Observing the Sacraments is both informed by and connected to the preaching of God’s Word by an ordained minister of the Gospel. Therefore, we should observe both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper when we “come together as a Church” (1 Cor. 11:18). The New Testament also required the Church to take up an offering every first day of the week, when they gathered together (1 Cor. 16:1-2). Paul required Timothy to give attention to the public reading of Scripture among his ministerial duties (1 Tim. 4:13). The call to worship and benediction are both applications of the public reading of the Word. Even though no one can flee from God’s presence (Ps. 139:7), the call to worship at the beginning of the service calls us to “come before His presence” (Ps. 100:2) in a special manner. The benediction is a promise to us from God to the effect that He will set His name upon us and bless us (Num. 6:27). Neither the call to worship nor the benediction should be our own words. God speaks to His people most directly through the public reading of Scripture. Nor should God’s benediction to us be replaced by a doxology, in which we offer praise to Him. Public prayer has occupied a prominent role in public worship in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g., 1 Kings 8; Neh. 8; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 14:14-19). The book of Psalms was used in corporate worship in the Old Testament, and worshiping God in song is explicitly mandated in the New Testament (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Prayer and song are not only required as elements of our public worship, but our prayers and our songs should be based upon the prayers and songs that God has provided in His Word.
In a very real sense, we must regulate every aspect of our lives by Scripture (Deut. 4:2; Rom. 12:1-2). We must take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), perform every word and deed in His name (Col. 3:17), and do whatsoever we do to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Does this mean that everything that is lawful to us in our lives in general is lawful in corporate worship as well? The answer is that Scripture must be applied appropriately in every context of life. The sixth commandment implies that we must take care of our health, which includes bathing ourselves. If we bathe ourselves in private, then we honor the commandment of God. However, if we bathe ourselves in public, then we break other commandments of God because the context in inappropriate. Some people advocate dancing in public worship, since dancing is permissible by God (Eccl. 3:4). Psalm 149 illustrates the different ways in which we must praise God in all of life. We must praise Him “in the assembly of saints” (v. 2). We must praise Him on our beds (v. 5). We must praise Him in our warfare (v. 6-9). So we must praise Him with the dance as well (v. 3). Bringing our beds into corporate worship or engaging in warfare during the sermon would not only be inappropriate, but absurd, if not wicked. So it is with respect to dancing. We must do all things to the glory of God, but this does not negate vital distinctions between corporate worship and everything else that we do. The question is not simply what pleases God in general, but what pleases God in our worship.
The questions that we ask regarding worship can reveal whether or not our principles are on the right track. If someone questions an aspect of the worship service of the church that you attend, do you respond by saying, “What is wrong with it?” The real question is, “Who has required this from your hand?” (Is. 1:12). The beauty of New Testament worship lies in its biblical simplicity and biblical content, coupled with the promise and the presence of God.
Doctrinal and Practical Conclusions
We know the Triune God only by means of the Gospel as He is revealed in Scripture. The purpose of worship is to glorify and to enjoy fellowship with God in three Persons. The nature of God, our position as creatures, our blindness as sinners, and the debt of gratitude we owe for the Gospel should lead us to worship God according to Scripture only, even if He had never explicitly commanded us to do so. When we worship God according to His Word, with hearts that are loyal to Him through faith, we have attained one of the most effective means of pursuing His glory and our own growth in grace. I conclude with the following seed thoughts for your edification:
- We must neither formulate our public worship for the non-believer or for the believer, but for God only. The question of importance is not what pleases us, but what pleases God in worship.
- Every element of worship involves our participation. If God speaks to us through preaching, then we must worship Him by our reverent and active hearing. We must not make the common mistake of speaking exclusively of singing as worship. Worship is a holy “dialogue” between God and our souls, in which alternately He speaks to us and we respond to Him. We must be active in every portion of the worship service.
- When worship is God-centered and follows God’s Word as its blueprint, then worship is truly evangelistic (1 Cor. 14:25). Is not the greatest need of the non-believer to behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
- God-ordained worship is a means for pursuing revival for the Church. We must not expect the blessing of the Lord upon our own inventions and schemes. We must wait in faith for God to bless His own means of grace.
- Let us prepare ourselves for corporate worship throughout the week by worshiping God in private and with our families.
- Let us come to corporate worship with the expectation that God shall manifest His presence in our midst. Is it not possible that we have not seen more glory and beauty in the simple worship of the New Testament because we have not approached worship expecting God to reveal His glory to us? Let us take heart from His promises and let us gather together in faith!