The Need for True Worship
All Christians need to cultivate a life with God that is growing and developing. If we are not growing, we will stagnate or die. The corporate, official worship of God’s people is a crucial and essential means that God has given to help us grow. Think of the words of Hebrews 10:19-22:
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
This passage calls Christians to draw near to God through Christ since, even as Christians, we experience a distance between ourselves and God that only the work of Christ can bridge. We need to draw near to Him personally and individually in devotion, meditation and prayer; but we also need to draw near to Him by meeting with Him in the fellowship of His people, where God promises to be especially present (Matt. 18:20). We meet with God when the people of God meet together, pray together, sing together and listen to His Word together.
Worshiping False Gods
John Calvin rightly called the human heart “a factory of idolatry,” meaning that faithful worship does not come naturally to fallen human beings. Sinners become idolaters because God has so deeply planted the need for Himself in human beings that when we do not know the true God, we invent false gods, false religion, and false worship. God warns against such idolatrous worship in the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” The idolatrous worship of false gods is condemned throughout the Bible.
Worshiping the True God Falsely
The second commandment teaches us that idolatry is not only a matter of worshiping false gods, which is prohibited in the first commandment, but it is also a matter of worshiping the true God falsely. The second commandment says,
You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus. 20:4-6).
The New Testament also warns against pleasing ourselves with false worship. Paul wrote to the Colossians condemning their novelties and experiments with “self-imposed worship” (Col. 2:23). Jesus warned against allowing traditions to dominate and subvert the Word of God: “And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matt. 15:6). Jesus was not speaking about worship when He made that statement, but then He used Isaiah 29:13, which is about worship, to support His words:
This people honors Me with their lips,
but their heart is far away from Me.
But in vain do they worship Me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. (Matt. 15:8-9)
He was saying that our service to God, whether in life generally or in corporate worship, must not be determined by tradition but must follow the teaching of God in the Bible.
The Bible reminds us that neither our instincts nor our traditions and experiments are reliable guides to worship. The Bible itself is our only reliable guide.
The Character of Worship
To learn how to worship God in a way that will please Him rather than offend Him and be judged by Him, we must begin by understanding the Bible’s definition of what worship is. The Bible uses the word worship in at least three important ways.
Personal and Corporate Worship
First, worship can refer to the whole life of the Christian. We are to live our lives for God and under God. We should seek to have all we do become loving service to Him. Paul had this sense of worship in mind when he wrote at the beginning of the application section of the book of Romans, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:1-2). In these verses all life is looked upon as worship.
Second, worship can refer to those personal times of prayer, praise, reflection, or Bible reading when we focus on God. David worshiped as he prayed and sang alone at night:
When I remember You on my bed,
I meditate on You in the night watches,
For You have been my help,
And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy. (Ps. 63:6-7)
Third, worship can refer to times when Christians gather officially as a congregation to praise God. This form of worship is commended and commanded in the Scriptures. Let us not forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).
The Psalms celebrate this privilege of corporate worship:
Praise the LORD.
I will give thanks to the LORD with all my heart,
In the company of the upright and in the assembly. (Ps. 111:1)
Clearly God wants His people to gather as congregations, expressing that they are the Body of Christ as they worship Him with one another.
A Critical Text: Hebrews 12:28-29
The book of Hebrews is particularly important here because it shows the connection between the worship of the Old Testament and the worship of the New Testament, and also because it draws attention to the uniqueness of our worship as the New Testament people of God. Hebrews 12:28-29 states:
Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
This passage directs us to two key elements for our thinking about worship: first, the character of God as the object of our worship, and second, our response to God in worship.
- The Character of God. The aspect of God’s nature is not explicit in Hebrews 12:28-29, but it is pointed to in the immediate context. Thus Hebrews 12:23-24 reminds us that in worship we come by faith to the living God and to Jesus who is “the mediator of a new covenant.” Here two of the persons of the Trinity are distinguished.
This priority needs to be reaffirmed especially today. Too often today when people speak of acceptable worship they mean worship that is acceptable to themselves or perhaps acceptable especially to the unchurched. While worship must communicate clearly to the gathered congregation, the Bible insists that worship must, above all, be acceptable to God. And we must always remember that we can only know what is acceptable to God by a careful study of His Word.
- Our Response to God. How should we respond in worship to this holy, saving God? Hebrews 12 not only specifies the character of God for us in worship, but it also clarifies the character of our response to God: our worship is to be characterized by thankfulness and awe. Especially in reaction to God’s saving work we are to be thankful and filled with joy. The Psalms often express this response:
Sing for joy to God our strength;
Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob. (Ps. 81:1)
O come, let us sing for joy to the LORD,
Let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving,
Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. (Ps. 95:1-2)
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing. (Ps. 100:2)
For You, O LORD, have made me glad by what You have done,
I sing for joy at the works of Your hands. (Ps. 92:4)
Our response to God ought to be one of great joy and gladness. In response, particularly to the holiness of God, we experience awe and reverence before Him. The Psalms also show us this reaction:
Worship the LORD in holy attire;
Tremble before Him, all the earth. (Ps. 96:9)
The LORD reigns, let the peoples tremble;
He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!
The LORD is great in Zion,
And He is exalted above all the peoples.
Let them praise Your great and awesome name;
Holy is He.
The strength of the King loves justice;
You have established equity;
You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the LORD our God
And worship at His footstool;
Holy is He. (Ps. 99:1-5)
This combination of joy and awe may not always be easy to achieve, but it must be our goal. We must remember that reverence does not always mean quiet, and joy does not always mean noise. Joy and reverence are first of all attitudes of the heart for which we seek appropriate expressions in worship. Joy may be intense in the singing of a very quiet song. Reverence may be expressed in loud singing.
As we seek balance, we must begin by remembering that corporate worship is meeting with our God, who is a consuming fire. For that to happen, we must know God’s will for how we are to worship. That knowledge comes only through knowing His Word.
Worship and the Word
The churches of the Reformation (and, to a significant extent, the churches before the Reformation) not only sought to have the Bible guide their worship but also sought to fill worship with the Word of God. This is because the Word not only instructs us but is also the means through which we draw near to God. We know, serve and worship God through his Word.
How is the Word to be present and fill our worship? As the Bible shows, the Word is present in several forms.
Reading God’s Word
The most obvious is the reading of the Word. This Word should be a distinct and central part of worship. Paul wrote to Timothy, “give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Here the reading of the Bible is given an importance that is on a level to preaching and teaching. The Bible makes no rule on how much Scripture must be read in any one worship service.
Praying God’s Word
The Word should also fill our prayers. The greatest prayers of the church are rich in the language of the Bible itself, offering God’s Word back to Him in prayer. The words of the Bible should inform our prayers with the truth of God, the promises of God and the blessings of God on His people. Surely we should treasure the privilege of speaking to God together as His people and should do so in a manner that shows that His Word has filled our minds and hearts.
Singing God’s Word
The Word should be the basis of our singing. Primary attention should be given to the content of songs, measuring lyrics by what is scriptural.
The Preaching of the Word
Finally, the Word must be present in the preaching of the church. Preaching is the verbal communication of God’s Word, applying it to the lives of God’s people. God comes to His people and speaks to His people in the faithful preaching of His Word.
Leadership in Worship
Discussion of the Word in worship leads naturally to the subject of leadership in worship. The classic pattern of Protestant worship was for the minister to lead the worship. That pattern arose from the teaching of the New Testament, since out of the congregation God called pastors and teachers to be set apart for leadership roles. “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12).
The minister leads worship as a conversation between God and the people. In the movement of worship, God speaks to His worshipers, and they respond to him. As James reminds us, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (4:8).
Music and Worship
Should we sing old hymns or praise choruses? Should the music be classical, traditional, folk, rock, contemporary, country and western, or what? Should we use organs and pianos, or guitars and drums?
What are we to make of these matters?
A change in music, whether to something older or newer, is difficult because most worshipers are not musicians and simply like what is familiar to them. Most worshipers are not motivated by some aesthetic theory but by the emotional links they have to their familiar music. Because music so powerfully engages and expresses our emotions, it is not surprising that it is an emotional minefield for individuals and congregations.
As with all forms of worship, we must evaluate music in the first place biblically. We must stand back from our own experiences and preferences and ask again, “What pleases God?” We should recognize that not all music and praise pleases Him.
Think of the worship and praise that Israel offered to God in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. They made a golden calf, called it the Lord, and danced around it (Ex. 32:4-6). Such praise was an abomination to God and evoked his wrath! We must carefully seek what the Bible says about how we should praise the Lord and make music to Him.
When we think of music in the worship of God, we are really thinking of three issues: 1) the words that we sing, 2) the tunes to which we sing those words, and 3) the instruments we might use to accompany the singing.
The Words We Sing
Of these three issues the first is the most important. The words we take upon our lips to sing to God must be true and pleasing to him. God has given us direction by giving us in the Bible a whole book as a model for what we are to sing. The Book of Psalms (which in Hebrew is entitled “The Book of Praises”) provides us with songs that God Himself has inspired. The Psalms should at least function as the model for what we as Christians sing to God.
The words themselves have a twofold purpose. First, they should be glorifying to God and centered upon Him and His works. Second, they are to be an instrument to minister to one another during the corporate worship time (Eph. 5:19).
The Songs We Use
What do the Psalms teach about song? First, they remind us of the rich variety of songs that we can and should present to God. The Psalms contain joyful praise and thanksgiving. The Psalms are called the Book of Praises because they not only contain, but also culminate in the praise of God (see especially Psalms 146—150.) But the Psalms contain more than praise. Some Psalms reflect on creation (for example, Psalms 19 and 104); others recount the great saving work of God in Christ (Psalms 2, 22, 24, and 110); still others meditate on the perfections of God’s revealed Word (especially Psalm 119). There are Psalms of lamentation and repentance (Psalms 32, 51, and 137) as well as Psalms that express the confusion and frustration that God’s people sometimes experience living in this fallen world (Psalms 44 and 73).
Second, the Psalms also model for us the substance of our singing. Some Psalms are short and have repetitive elements, and some are full, rich, profound responses to God and His work.
What Tunes Shall We Sing?
We may use any tune that is singable for a congregation and that supports the content of the song. The tune should reflect the mood and substance of the song in light of the joy and reverence that are appropriate to worship. The songs should also reflect the congregation who is being called on to sing them.
What Kind of Instruments?
What kind of musical accompaniment is biblical? In Old Testament worship a wide range of instruments was used in the worship in the temple. Yet, in the worship in the church, it appears that for almost the first thousand years of its history no instruments were used in Christian worship. Today, most churches use one or more instruments. But where instruments are used, the instruments should aid the singing of the congregation, not overwhelm it. They should contribute to a deep spirit of reverence and joy, not undermine it.
Nowhere in the New Testament church are instruments clearly used for worship. They certainly have no central or independent role in worship. At most they should support the singing that the congregation is commanded to do.
Music is a powerful and vital element in the worship life of God’s people. But precisely because it is so significant, we need to give careful thought to it. We must be sure that we are pleasing God and not entertaining ourselves. The temptation to turn worship into entertainment is great because as sinners we are much more inclined to be self-centered than God-centered. We are much more inclined to amuse ourselves than to serve God.
Preparing for Worship
To meet with God, we need to come prepared to worship. We need to come well-rested, expectant, thoughtfully ready to meet with God. We need to be aware that God will be present in the elements of worship that He has appointed. He will be present to speak through His Word and will be present to hear our praise and prayers. We need to come with a clear understanding of the ways in which worship with God’s people will bless us and should come looking for that blessing.
We come to worship in faith. Faith is trusting Christ, resting in His finished work for the forgiveness of our sins. Our faith must be real as we come to church, so that our reliance on Christ may deepen. We come to worship with repentance, acknowledging that we are sinners and seeking the grace of God so that we turn more and more from sin and pursue holiness. We come to worship with love for God and for His people. Such love will make us desire communion with the people of God and long to draw nearer to God.
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD.” (Ps. 122:1)
When the heart is prepared for and engaged in worship, we can enter into the sentiments of the Psalmist:
Teach me Your way, O LORD;
I will walk in Your truth;
Unite my heart to fear Your name.
I will give thanks to You, O LORD my God, with all my heart;
And will glorify Your name forever.
For Your lovingkindness toward me is great,
And You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. (Ps. 86:11-13)
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there is any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way. (Ps. 139:23-24)
I will give thanks to You with all my heart;
I will sing praises to You before the gods.
I will bow down toward Your holy temple
And give thanks to Your name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth,
For You have magnified Your word according to all Your name. (Ps. 138:1-2)
When the heart is prepared by the Word of God and by God’s Spirit for worship, then the worship we desire is the worship that delights God. We come not to be pleased but to offer God the worship that pleases Him. We move from the self-centeredness that characterizes those who do not know God to the God-centeredness that should characterize those who do know Him.