Few topics get Christians talking more adamantly than the style and content of a worship service. Churches with divided services based on worship formats are common throughout the United States. More often than not, the question is directed towards what style of music the church will use. In reality, the style of music should be one of the least of our concerns in planning a worship service. One of the most troubling aspects of worship in the United States is that few churches (even among the biblically based ones) use the Bible to guide and direct the priorities for worship. This post will be the first in a series that will explore the biblical foundation of worship. It is based on a study that I led several years ago, but it will be tempered with a few more years of experience and study.
The Inward Component of Worship
As with most aspects of the Christian life, worship displays an inward component and an outward component. To worship God rightly requires these two to knit together toward a common goal. The inward component is the worship that occurs within our hearts, our minds, and even our very souls. Indeed, the argument can be made that this is the chief purpose of human existence. As the first question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” When asked in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark what the greatest commandment was, Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-37 ESV, cf. Mark 12:29-30)
To have the outward component of worship without the inward component is merely a form of hypocrisy. In Isaiah 1, God rebukes Israel for maintaining all of the outward signs of worship without devoting themselves to inward worship.
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Isaiah 1:11-17 ESV
The Israelites were doing everything according to the instruction given by God. They offered sacrifices, they celebrated the holy days, they offered incense, and they made prayers to God. The issue was that their hearts were impenitent and unregenerate. Later, in 29:13, Isaiah makes it clear that the people of Judah were good at honoring God outwardly, but they had no genuine, inward worship. Jesus quoted this verse in reference to worship of the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8-9, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (ESV)
In short, true worship requires a regenerate heart. This is not the only instruction regarding inward worship, however. When addressing the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus made it clear that true worshippers of God, “must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24 ESV). The Apostle Paul also makes it clear that worship involves a progressive change of the human heart and mind. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul urges Christians, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (ESV)
The Outward Component of Worship
While inward worship is essential to true worship and is entirely within the heart of the believer, the outward component of worship is equally as essential. The second question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?” The answer being, “The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.” In fact, when we consider the counsel of Scripture, stern warnings accompany the worship of God. The second commandment is primarily concerned with the mode and manner of worshipping God. This commandment is appended with the warning, “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6 ESV) Also, with regard to His worship, God makes it clear that we should not add to it nor subtract from it. “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:32 ESV)
In preparing this post, I could easily think of at least three excellent examples of how God’s zeal for His worship was displayed in the Old Testament. The first is the death of Nadab and Abihu that is described in Leviticus 10:1-2. These men were among the first priests of Israel and the eldest sons of the high priest Aaron. While serving in the Tabernacle, they offered fire before the Lord. Different translations render the description of this fire as “strange” or “unauthorized.” The implication is that they offered incense in a manner not prescribed by God. In fact, the passage makes clear that God had not instructed them to do this. For their presumption and impiety, they were consumed with fire from the presence of the Lord and died.
The second example is described both in 2 Samuel 6:6-7 and 1 Chronicles 13:9-10. In this event, the Ark of the Covenant – the central symbol in the worship of the old covenant – was being brought to Jerusalem. The parties involved had placed the Ark on an ox cart and were moving it like a common box. In the Law of Moses, there was no instruction to move the Ark this way. In fact, the instructions always involved it being carried by Levites (cf. Numbers 4). On route to Jerusalem, one of the oxen stumbled and the Ark began to fall. Uzzah was a man standing next to the cart. He reached out his hand to steady the Ark. However, touching the Ark was also forbidden by God in the Law of Moses (also Numbers 4). Uzzah was struck dead for transgressing this commandment.
The third example is with King Saul. One of the chief aspects of Saul’s failure as king was his casual approach to God’s worship. When Samuel was delayed in arriving to an agreed upon location for worship, Saul offered the sacrifices himself (1 Samuel 13). This was something that God had decreed only priests should do – not kings. When God called on Saul to devote the entire Amalekite nation to destruction, Saul saved some of the livestock for sacrifices and the king of the nation as well (1 Samuel 15). In doing this, he tried to please God with sacrifices that were contrary to His revealed will. For this reason, God took the kingship away from Saul and his family and gave it to David.
“And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.” 1 Samuel 15:26-28 (ESV)
The command forbidding addition to God’s worship was made even clearer by God to Jeremiah when the Israelites began “worshipping” by offering their children to God as blood sacrifices. They had taken their own presumption of worship and offered it to God in the most abominable way possible. God emphatically declares that this form worship was something, “which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind.” (Jeremiah 19:5 ESV) God’s retaliation on Judah for its sins made the error of this sin abundantly clear. For these and related sins, God pronounced judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem and brought about the destruction of the city that He had chosen for the dwelling of His Name.
This view of worship is also made clear in the New Testament. Several times, worship that is instituted from human origin is horribly condemned. Rather, our worship is match the pattern given by God. I have previously referenced Matthew 15 where Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Likewise, in both Colossians and 1 Corinthians, Paul rebuked the churches for errant worship.
The Colossians appear to have had some among them who advocated some form of mystery religion that focused on the worship of angels and extreme asceticism.
“Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Colossians 2:18-23
Paul makes it clear that such religion is false and of human origin. If the Colossians truly wished to worship God, the answer was to do so in accord with Christ. These practices were not pleasing to God.
On the other hand, the Corinthian church took a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit (i.e. speaking in unknown languages in a manner given by the Holy Spirit) and used it in such a way that it was disorderly and did not edify the body of Christ. Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 14 that speaking in another language was far less beneficial to the body of Christ than a clearly spoken word of exhortation from God’s Word. Thus, there is both reason and purpose for us to order and direct our worship with elements that are ordained by God in Scripture and useful for edification of the church.
This idea that God’s revelation in Scripture is the sole director of our worship is called the Regulative Principle of Worship. In its simplest terms we might say it something like this, “does Scripture command it? Then do it. Is there no command from Scripture? Then, don’t do it.” This contrasts with an alternative view called the Normative Principle of Worship that would say something like, “does Scripture command it? Then do it. Is there no command from Scripture? Then, if Scripture doesn’t forbid it, it’s ok.” The Normative Principle of Worship can lead to dangerous territory fairly quickly as is evidenced by the passages above. For this reason, Reformed Christians have long sought to govern their worship by the Regulative Principle of Worship.
Summary and Looking Forward
To summarize, the holiness of our worship must be guarded in order to please God. Also, while outward worship without inward worship is hypocrisy, inward worship with invalid outward worship is blasphemous and destructive to the church. We must therefore have both in our worship. We must exhort our brothers and sisters to have genuine, pure inward worship. We must pray that our hearts would be prepared for worship. However, we must also plan our worship carefully in light of the revelation of God in Scripture.
In the next series of posts, we will look at the care and preparation that must go into to worship, the elements that are commanded in Scripture for our worship, physical aspects of planning worship and the space used for it, and ways for us to guard the holiness of our worship. I hope that this post has helped to show why worshipping together is something that should be undertaken with extreme reverence and devotion.