This article is about practicing reverence in worship. The author discusses the tone and mood in worship, emphasizing the importance of worshipping in godly fear and awe.

Source: The Outlook, 1998. 5 pages.

Worship with Godly Fear

Question: Why does the third command­ment require the holy and reverent use of God's names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works?

Answer: We offer to God acceptable wor­ship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29).

Two principles are crucial to Reformed worship — the regulative principle and the dialogical nature of corporate worship. The former permits us to do in pub­lic worship only what God com­mands in His revealed Word. The lat­ter, by underscoring the nature of worship as a meeting between God and His people, assigns to the ap­propriate parties certain roles and functions in the worship service. Thus these two principles guide us regarding the what (the elements), the when (the order), and the who (the participants) of worship. Still an­other important way to apply these principles has to do with the how of worship: they instruct us also about the tone and mood of worship.

Put another way, we learn from these principles not only what is permissible in worship, but what is wise in worship. The Bible tells us that we must worship God with fear and sobriety. We do not merely meet God in prayer, Word, song and sac­raments, but we do so in a reverent fashion. So acceptable worship is a dialogue with God that displays awe and godly fear. It is not enough to have the right elements. It is not enough to have the preached Word of God by a properly ordained min­ister of the Word. To conduct these elements with flippancy or careless­ness is to offer worship that is as displeasing to God as worship that had improper elements such as dance or drama.

John Calvin wrote that "pure and real religion" manifested itself through "faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence." But our irreverent age, borrowing from the idioms of Wall Street and Holly­wood, has cultivated such informal­ity and false intimacy that it renders any notion of reverence, much less willing reverence, increasingly re­mote.

For this reason, much of today's worship is oriented, consciously or not, around the idea of entertainment. Pastors and elders as leaders fall un­der tremendous pressure to keep the people in the pews entertained, lest in our market-driven evangelical subculture where the consumer is king, folks will leave and worship at the church across town with the bet­ter band, bigger stage, and more sophisticated sound and lighting sys­tem. Sermons are becom­ing "messages" which sound softer and less threatening than a sermon. And the "message" is delivered by one of us, a "regular guy," not God's servant who is a steward of the mysteries of God, who must handle the Word of truth with the utmost of care. Writing in the Chris­tian Century, Edward Farley recently commented that contemporary wor­ship creates a tone that is "casual, comfortable, chatty, busy, humorous, pleasant and at times even cute." He goes on to suggest that "if the seraphim assumed this Sunday morning mood, they would be ad­dressing God not as 'holy, holy, holy' but as 'nice, nice, nice."

Some defenders of contemporary worship go so far as to deny that there is any distinction between the purposes of worship and the pur­poses of entertainment. In a recent book tellingly titled Worship-Entertain­ment, one mega-church pastor argued that effective worship is measured by the extent to which it is good en­tertainment. Worship that is irrever­ent is a violation of Godly style. God desires reverent worship, worship that reflects the seriousness of God's presence among His saints.

What is reverence?🔗

To understand what Scripture teaches regarding reverent worship, it is helpful to begin by saying what it is not. First, dignity in worship is not achieved through elaborate cer­emonies or complex liturgies. In fact, Calvin believed that "wherever there is great ostentation in ceremo­nies, sincerity of the heart is rare indeed." And so reverence must always be accompanied by simplicity. It is all too common these days to hear of Christians, even Reformed Christians, who are so fed up with the superfi­ciality of evangelical worship that they take refuge in the Episcopalian or Roman Catholic Church. Why have they gone to Canterbury or Rome and not Geneva? Often, we fear, these liturgical migrants are still motivated by personal taste, except that now their taste has become a little more refined.

Further, there is no uniform way for expressing reverence. Bowing in the East and Western handshakes each express respect in culturally appro­priate ways. So too there are a vari­ety of ways for churches to embody reverence, depending on their cul­ture. But however it is expressed, reverence must always characterize our worship.

Finally reverence does not leave out room for joy, contrary to the charge of some critics of Reformed worship. Joy — along with a full range of emotions such as grief, an­ger, desire, hope and fear — should be a part of worship. But the need for reverence and decorum dictates that any expression of emotion in worship should be tempered by moderation, self-control and above all, respect for who God is and an awareness of our place before Him.

Having stripped away false no­tions of reverence, we would argue that reverence is simply a conse­quence of proper theological reflec­tion. The doctrine of God, of His ho­liness and justice, the doctrine of man, our sinfulness and depravity, and our doctrine of Christ, His sac­rificial atonement, together prompt Christians to come into God's pres­ence with holy fear.

Reverence in the Bible🔗

Since the fall of our first parents, the Old Testament tells us, man could come to God only through the shedding of blood. And so for the Israelites, "sacrifice" was synony­mous with "worship." "Bring an of­fering and come before him," we read in 1 Chronicles 16:29, the im­plication being, of course, that you don't come to God without one.

As this sacrificial system devel­oped in the history of God's people, it culminated in the rules and regu­lations that were carefully detailed in the book of Leviticus where God directed His people to worship Him through complex layers of ceremony. Only clean and spotless animals were to be sacrificed. Only priests appointed by God could act as the intercessors between God and His people. Only the high priest could offer the highest sacrifices in the Holy of Holies, only on the annual Day of Atonement, only when he is properly bathed and attired. The priest was to perform the offerings in a carefully choreographed order that had to be followed with unquali­fied precision.

All of this was a constant reminder of God's holiness and man's sinful­ness. Without this scrupulous atten­tion to detail and unwavering obe­dience to God's instructions, God would find the worship unaccept­able. The Israelites knew that if God did not consume the sacrifice He would consume the worshipers. God's righteous curse bars our ac­cess to Him, and God in His capac­ity as judge is angry toward us. Hence a mediator must intervene, offering a sacrifice on our behalf in order that God's wrath may be ap­peased and that we may obtain His favor. Needless to say, the OT sacrificial system cultivated Godly fear and reverence.

In the New Testament, God also requires fear and reverence from those who would worship Him in Spirit and in truth. The writer to the Hebrews provides an infallible com­mentary on the OT ceremonial law. All of the "onlys" in Leviticus served to prefigure the fulfillment of God's purposes: only Christ. The one-and-­only, Jesus Christ, the only Re­deemer of God's elect, fulfilled Israel's rituals. New covenant wor­shipers enjoy the reality that the Old Testament only foreshadowed. The church has the perfected Sacrifice, and that sacrifice provides a better way to worship God.

To be sure, the New Testament proclaims a radical transformation in worship thanks to the coming of Christ. When the shadows have dis­appeared and the fulfillment of the types arrives, Christ transforms the cowering fear of God in Leviticus into bold access. Paul writes that through faith in Christ "we may approach God with freedom and confidence" (Ephesians 3:12). This idea is ech­oed in the letter to the Hebrews at several points. "Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence," the author writes in 4:16. Similarly, he says in 10:19 that "we have confi­dence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus." Thus we can do what the Old Testament believ­ers could not do — we can approach God with boldness and confidence.

So it can be said that in one sense, the whole ceremonial law in Leviticus is obsolete for the Christian (Hebrews 8:13). But we must not overlook another sense in which the Levitical rituals are still of abiding relevance. Leviticus provides the theological categories for under­standing Christ's priesthood and for our worship through Him. The same God who established the sacrificial system for Israel sent His own son as a sacrifice in the fulness of time. Consequently, in studying the principles of worship revealed in Leviticus, we can learn how God still requires us to approach Him.

Evangelical Marcionism🔗

Protestants believe that through the perfection of Christ we worship with confidence. But it is precisely on this matter of confidence that confusion has arisen in evangelical worship. When we came to Christ, we first approached God fearfully. The demands of His law weighed heavily against our souls. The Holy Spirit convicted us of our sin and misery, and through the mediation of Christ, who has hushed the thun­der and quenched the flame of Sinai, we came to God, not the angry Law­giver, but the loving Father whom we lovingly and enthusiastically em­braced. But that was then. That was our conversion. Now, we come be­fore the Father each week in worship. Worship becomes trivial and rou­tine. We do it all the time, and we no longer need a Mediator since we have been saved. We approach God by ourselves and in the process we do so casually.

This transformation of worship parallels a problem that afflicted the early church. Marcion was a second century heretic who maintained a radical difference between the Old and New Testament, between the God of the Jews, who was vengeful and wrathful, and the Father of Jesus, a God of grace and mercy. Seeing these two as irreconcilably opposed, he reduced the Christian canon to only those portions of the New Tes­tament that spoke of the God of love. Although he was condemned by the early church, Marcion could be the patron saint of many contemporary Christians, because all too often we come to worship thinking like Marcion. Yes, God was strict in the Old Testament; Leviticus tells us that. But He became loving in the New Testament, or so it seems. New Testament worship is no longer for­mal or strict or highly regulated. The church has become informal, spon­taneous and "user friendly" — words that hardly fit the image of Leviticus.

To follow Marcion is to have a gravely false sense of confidence. It is to remove Christ as the object of our confidence, and thus to twist confidence into presumption. And it is to misunderstand the book of Hebrews. Hebrews warns that the fire of Mount Zion is far greater than the fire of Mount Sinai. Our confi­dence in our right standing before God, the full assurance that we bring to God in worship, comes only on the basis of Christ's objective work. Yes, we draw near to the Father with "full assurance of faith." This assur­ance drives out all bondage and fear. But it does not promote indiffer­ence, casualness or presumption, which is false assurance.

Confidence and reverence🔗

Even the most casual of contem­porary worship services will be oc­casionally marked by some sobriety. Most will concede that at least some reverence is required, for example, when the church observes the Lord's Supper. Yet even in these expres­sions of reverence a false notion pre­vails. What tends to happen is that worship services toggle back and forth between these seemingly contradictory emotions: a little upbeat praise here, some somber reverence there.

In contrast to such schizophrenia is the language of our Reformed con­fessions. For example Q&A 100 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in­structs us, when in prayer, to "draw near to God with all holy reverence and confidence." Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism tells us to come to God our Father in prayer with "childlike rev­erence for and trust in God" (Q&A 120). Our Catechisms discourage us from imagining that we come to the Father with reverence and confi­dence as if we had to balance deli­cately two contradictory sentiments, tight-roping between extremes. On the contrary, they saw that reverence and confidence were mutually rein­forcing. We can be truly confident be­cause we are reverent. Likewise, we can be truly reverent because we are confi­dent.

And so the Belgic Confession con­trasts Godly fear with "foolish fear," the latter being a fear that is dislo­cated from the work of Christ. And the Heidelberg Catechism in­sists that Godly fear characterize our use of God's name. According to Q&A 99, the third command­ment requires that we not "profane or abuse the name of God" but rather that "we use the Holy Name of God in no other way than with fear and reverence, so that He may be rightly confessed and worshiped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works." Finally, the Can­ons of Dort link reverence and joy as complementary not antagonistic characteristics. Perseverance works "humility, reverence, piety, patience, prayer, endurance in suffering, con­fession of the truth, and rejoicing."

The teaching of our confessions suggests a simple test for distin­guishing between genuine and counterfeit joy in worship: is it ac­companied by reverence or not? Are we boasting in our Savior or are we boasting in ourselves? Are we look­ing to Christ for access to God, or are we feeling good about our own merits? We overcome our fear only through the death and resurrection of Christ. We are spared death and judgment only because Christ will­ingly submitted to both. How dare we observe Christ's work in any su­perficial or indifferent or irreverent manner! If we do, we are surely prone to relocate the source of our confidence. If we overcome our fear through any other means than the blood of Christ, we are committing idolatry.

The funeral of a Christian contains characteristics that should also be present in worship. Such funerals are times of reverence and joy. When we contemplate the death of a loved one we are filled with sadness and are reminded of our own frailty. Yet, when the deceased is a believer, the service is also an occasion for joy be­cause we trust that God has called one of His children to be with Him, and that the believer has been "made perfect in holiness" and has "passed immediately into glory." Why should a worship service, where the death of our Lord is central, be any different? His death is one that we caused, death that should pro­voke hatred for our sin and humility for our un­worthiness. (This is the ethos, by the way, of most observances of the Lord's Supper, a fact that may argue for weekly communion in order to ensure reverence in our worship.)

Of course, we do not stop with Christ's death in our worship. We go on to rejoice at His resurrection with­out which, the apostle says, we would not have hope. Still, the joy we expe­rience in contemplating and worship­ing the risen Savior is an emotion that always is tinged with sobriety and hu­mility. It is not the high-fiving ecstasy of fans who have just seen their team with the national championship. Nor is it the celebration of a job promo­tion. It is not the champagne-spray­ing celebration of World Series cham­pions. It is a joy that not only recog­nizes the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, but also recognizes our own complicity because of our sin, in His pain and death. When we contem­plate the suffering of Christ we come in humility, restraining sinful im­pulses, and we embrace a bleeding Savior as the fountain of our comfort.

Reverent worship is not an effec­tive way of persuading the world that Christians are capable of having a good time. That is because modern culture cannot see God as frighten­ing. Seeker-sensitive worship has re­placed a consuming fire with an af­firming and empowering God, one who accepts whatever we do. It has substituted the meeting of "felt needs" for the demands of His law. From this it follows that we no longer need a mediator. Of course, many will say we still need Christ, but their attitude and posture in worship sug­gest otherwise. When we fail to gather on the Lord's Day to offer un­conditional honor to the Savior, we are exchanging true worship for man-made and idolatrous imita­tions. Many contemporary innova­tions in worship reflect unwarranted confidence in the self. The work of Christ is silenced and pushed to the margins of our life. No longer is His sacrifice our only hope for access to the Father.

By practicing reverence, Christian worship can confront our therapeu­tic culture with the truth that God comes to us only on His terms, and never on ours. His terms are the sac­rifice. Only in the death and resur­rection of Christ do we meet God and escape His wrath and curse. In Christ we find both the "goodness and severity of God" (Romans 11:22). God accepts our worship because as a consuming fire He has consumed the Sacrifice on our behalf.

Finally, reverent worship cultivates the sense that worshipers have of­fended God. Worship should be char­acterized by Godly fear and humility. It is not done lightly but with care and attention. It is the natural response of creatures in the presence of the holy and sovereign God. And it is worship that conforms to God's Word:

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.

Hebrews 12:28-29

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