Worship matters because both its object and subject is God. By looking at God’s Word as the standard for worship this article shows why the statement is true.

Source: APC News, 2013. 3 pages.

Worship Matters

The Situation🔗

In our context, should someone approach their pastor to say, “I should like to talk with you about worship”, that pastor elder is likely to groan inwardly because it has become like discussing politics or religion with relatives – painful and divisive. Worship has become so controversial in our time that it is sometimes easy to forget what worship is, giving to the living, holy, merciful triune God the praise and thanks due to his name, for his glory, according to his revealed Word.

Worship matters because it is an intensely personal and affecting business. In worship the living God speaks to us in his Word, he seals his gospel promises to us in his sacraments, and we respond with divinely ordained words of thanks and praise. In worship we grow in grace and holiness. The church has long known this truth. This is why the medieval church said, “the law of praying is the law of believing.” They knew that practice of worship shapes believers. In the words of Greg Beale, we become what we worship.” Thus, it is essential for the church to recover a biblical and historically Reformed understanding of worship.

The Standard🔗

From a historical perspective it might be a little puzzling that Reformed Christians are unsettled and uncertain about worship. After all, early on in the sixteenth century the Reformed reached a consensus about the principle by which worship services would be organized and they were fairly vigorous about implementing that principle. It is articulated clearly in the Westminster Confession of Faith (21.1):

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 and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

All the Reformed communions across Europe and the British Isles from the 1520s forward agreed with this way of articulating the principle of worship. Thus, when the Westminster Divines began meeting, despite their disagreements over church polity and even resistance from a small minority to the widely held doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, one thing on which they all agreed almost immediately was this statement of the principle by which Christian worship services should be organized.

Behind this agreement lay other convictions. The first of these supporting convictions was the doctrine that Scripture is the sole, unique authoritative revelation of God’s saving and moral will. Gradually, over more than a millennium, in response to heresies, the Western church had marginalized the unique authority of Scripture. Where some heretics had claimed secret knowledge and put forward erroneous interpretations of Scripture, the medieval church had taken to asserting that the Scriptures could only be properly interpreted by the church and further that the church did so not on the basis of the essential clarity of Scripture but on the basis of a secret, unwritten tradition from the apostles. Eventually, in response to the Reformation, the Roman communion would assert the Roman church does more than merely interpret Scripture: she is the mother of Scripture. In effect, Scripture was no longer the master but now the servant of the church. Further, against the Reformers, Rome asserted that Scripture is not essentially clear.

At the outset of the Reformation, the Protestants made two responses. First, they asserted the unique authority of Scripture. The church did not give birth to Scripture. Rather, they said, the Word is always the source of the church. After all, Scripture says, “In the beginning God” (Gen 1:1) and “God said ... and it was” (Gen 1:3). His Word is creative. It is through the Word that the church is constituted. The Word said, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18) and “Lo, I will be with you always” (Matt 28:20). The church is a servant, a minister, not the master or Creator.

Second, they argued that God’s Word is, by divine intention and supervision, essentially and sufficiently clear. Again, the Westminster Confession captures the spirit of sola Scriptura perfectly (1.7): All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all:

yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

We recognize that there are difficult passages in Scripture but what must be known can be known because it is “clearly propounded.” That clarity extends to the principle and practice of Christian worship.

The principle and practice of worship was to clear the Reformed churches for about two centuries but today many of services would be unrecognizable to those who framed our confessions and wrote the earliest accounts of our theology, piety, and practice. What happened?

The Subject🔗

The full story of how worship was gradually remodeled in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would take us well beyond the scope of this brief essay but suffice it to say that we lost track of our principle. The historical evidence suggests that we gave in to the spirit of the age, to enthusiasm, to pragmatism and by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the church found herself in a fight for her life with theological liberalism, the teaching of WCF 21 was obscured by the fog of war. In the post-war period, if that is indeed where we are, it is time to take stock, bandage our wounds, and to torture the metaphor, to read our orders again.

Another reason the discussion over the principle and practice of public worship is controversial is that the cultural situation in which we are conducting the discussion has changed dramatically. As late as the 1950s there was, in the postwar West, a consensus that there is such a thing as objective truth. Today, that consensus has all but disappeared. Over the last generation any idea of objective truth has been replaced, particularly among the so-called Millennial generation (aged 18-34) with the notion that truth is entirely subjective, that there is “your truth” and “my truth” but not truth that we can all know in roughly the same way, at the same time.

The loss of confidence in the existence of truth has caused many folk to become suspicious about truth claims. The logic is simple. If we all know there is no objective truth and if someone claims that his view is true and yours is false, then that person is either mad or seeking to impose his will on us. To the degree this view of truth has infiltrated into the church, to the same degree the various parties are unable to talk with one another about what worship is and how it ought to be conducted. The whole thing devolves into an argument about “styles” and “preferences” when it ought be about a principle and the practice that flows from the principle.

Starting Over🔗

When we gather for worship, we do so as the redeemed people of God. This is as it should be and as it has always been. The Lord delivered us out of Egypt in order to worship him at the mountain (Ex 7:16). We were redeemed in order to worship. When we gather we do so also in light of eternity. The Revelation gives us snapshots of glory and those pictures, which make liberal use of imagery from the old covenant, all show the church at worship.

Worship matters because both its object and its subject is God. Typically, when discuss worship we speak or write about what “we” do. “In our service we sing this.” As a matter of experience, that is true but it is only partly so. According to Our Lord, in his dialogue with the woman at the well, the triune God, who has revealed himself and his will to us, is both the recipient of worship and its source. As a sort of dodge, she tried to divert Jesus away from her sins by raising a controversial matter between Jews and Samarians. Our Lord replied,

...the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.John 4:23-24; EST

Frequently this passage is interpreted as if Our Lord side-stepped her question. He did not. They agreed that the Father is the proper recipient of worship but he did answer her question about where. When our Lord said, “spirit and truth” in v. 24 he was not referring to abstractions but to persons. When Jesus spoke to her of the Father (v. 23) he put the question in Trinitarian terms. The God we worship is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When he mentions the “spirit,” the immediate reference is not to our intent but to the Holy Spirit. When he says, “truth,” the immediate reference is not to true statements but rather to himself as the Truth. He is, after all, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Jesus was answering the woman’s question but he was answering it in a way she did not anticipate.

When we are worshipping the true God truly, according to his Word, in faith, in new life, in union with Christ, we are worshipping him in the Holy Spirit and in the Truth, in Christ our Savior. The Spirit is empowering our worship (Rom 8:26). In other words, though we are involved and consciously making choices, through which God is pleased to work, we are not the final authority. God is because he is not only operating through our worship to accomplish his purposes but it is he whom we worship and the king always determines how he will be approached and by whom.

Just as there is an objective place for worship (in Christ and in the Spirit), there is also an objective principle on which public worship services should be planned and conducted: the acceptable way of approaching God in worship is instituted by God and limited by his will. We may do in worship only what he has commanded. This principle pushes back to Scripture. What has God said? Scripture is clear. He has given us eyes to read it and the Spirit to help us understand it and confessions to guide us. We had a consensus. It’s true that we lost our way for a time but all is not lost. We are still the church. Christ is still our Savior. His Word is still sovereign. Worship can be done in the way that he has commanded, it must be done, because worship matters.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.