Worship and the Reformation Gospel

by John M. Frame


First, let me say that it is good to be with you, and let me express my thanks to the conference organizers for inviting me. Let me also commend them for their insight in combining a Reformation theme with a worship theme. We often think of the Reformation as focused on the doctrine of salvation, specifically justification by grace through faith, and rightly so. But it was also and equally concerned with worship. The Reformers believed that the Roman Mass had become idolatrous, with worship given to the bread and wine of communion, rather than to the living Lord himself. Not to mention veneration of Mary and the saints, religious relics, and so on.

Worship and salvation: these two topics are very closely related in Scripture and in church history. In the fourth century controversy over the deity of Christ, the main arguments from the orthodox side were, first, that if Christ is not fully God, our worship of him has been idolatry. And second, that if Christ is not fully God, we are yet in our sins; for salvation is of the Lord.

The Bible also brings worship and salvation close together. In Scripture, worship is our basic stance before God. I define it as acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord. When you stand in God’s presence, youmust acknowledge his greatness. When you meet a king, you bow, and you use language like “your majesty” that reflects his great importance and shows your own subordination. When human beings stand before the King of the whole universe, our self-abasement ought to be far more profound.

So in the Bible, worship exists in every meeting between God and his creatures. Where God stands is holy ground. When God appears to us, we humble ourselves and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by who he is, by his greatness in comparison with our puny smallness. When we meditate on how God is present everywhere, as David does in Psalm 139, we stand in reverent awe and praise him.

So I have no doubt that Adam and Eve worshiped God in the Garden before they fell into sin. God was there with them, speaking to them, declaring their tasks. What response could they have given to him, other than worship: reverent awe in his presence, supreme readiness to hear his Word and do it?

But somehow, and I don’t understand how this could have happened, Adam and Eve disobeyed that Word and fell into sin. Afterward, they met God again, but it was different. They were not only concerned with God’s greatness and authority. They were also concerned with their own sin and God as the judge. God did come to judge Satan, curse the ground, and bring suffering into human life. But wonderfully he also promised redemption. We would not be destroyed, as we deserved to be, but we would live by the sweat of our brow and bring forth children by painful labor. And in God’s time, one of those children, the “seed of the woman” (Gen. 3:15) will crush the head of the devil-serpent.

After the Fall, human worship could not just acknowledge God’s greatness and authority. It would also call on him for forgiveness of sin, on the basis of his promise of a savior. And in our worship we would praise God for that promise, and for all the fulfillments of it through history: the Exodus, the conquest, the return from exile, and especially the final atonement: Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

So when Adam and Eve fell, worship and salvation became inseparable. We would have worshiped God even if we hadn’t fallen. But after the fall, we must always be concerned about salvation when we meet God. So Old Testament worship focuses on sacrifice, and New Testament worship focuses on the Resurrection of Jesus, the final sacrifice.

We should expect, then, that the Bible’s teachings about salvation will profoundly affect our worship. In my five messages in this conference, I will survey the doctrines emphasizes by the Reformation, to show how they should affect our worship. The Reformation emphasized five “alones:” salvation is by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone, by grace alone, bringing glory to God alone. The Latin word for “only” is solus with, of course, various case endings. So you often hear these principles in Latin: sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone, sola fide, by faith alone, solo Christo, by Christ alone, sola gratia, by grace alone, soli deo gloria, bringing glory to God alone.


1. Sola Scriptura

When we consider worship, one of the first questions concerns authority. Are there rules governing worship? And, if so, where can we find them? Everything else we say about worship depends on our answer to this question.

Now the rules have to come from God. It should be obvious that in worship we are seeking to please God, not ourselves. This is true of everything in life, and in one sense everything in life is worship. We seek to glorify him in everything we do, even to make our bodies living sacrifices, which Paul says is our spiritual worship. But Scripture also calls us to meetings to worship God in a special way. And then, when we approach God’s special presence to acknowledge his greatness, we want above all to please him.

Now for our worship we could invent all kinds of interesting ceremonies, speak all manner of profound thoughts, let our artistic imaginations run wild. But which of these, if any, actually pleases God? Can we expect God to commend our creativity, our artistry, our ideas? Which of them does he like, dislike? Which does he like the most, or dislike the least? If our own thoughts and imaginations are all we have to go on, I’d have to say honestly, “your guess is as good as mine.”

We may have at hand some standards or criteria for judging words or ceremonies or artistry: standards of truth, depth, profundity. We think we know what makes for good preaching, good music, a good worship experience. But why should we think that God shares those standards? His thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and his ways than our ways.

We’re just going to flounder around with this, unless God himself speaks, unless God himself tells us what pleases him. I do believe that our thoughts, our creativity play a role in worship. But first, our minds, our thoughts, our creativity, must bow before God. First we must humble ourselves. First we must hear his Word.

Has God spoken? The Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s day and ours believes that God speaks equally in Scripture and in the traditions of the church. But Luther, with fear and trembling, rejected centuries of church tradition for the sake of Scripture. He and the Roman Church agreed that Scripture was God’s Word. They agreed that it had authority. The difference was that Luther also believed that Scripture was sufficient. He believed that our decisions should be based on Scripture alone, so that if there is a conflict between Scripture and tradition we must always resolve that conflict in favor of Scripture. Scripture not only has authority, but its authority is unique, over against all other sources of authority. It is the judge of all human thoughts, of all human life, of all human worship, and of all church tradition.

It was this insight that got the Reformation going. If Scripture is sufficient, then we are free to sweep aside centuries of traditions, human customs, ceremonies, theological ideas, liturgies.

Now we need to ask, was Luther right? Was he right to base everything on Scripture, to be as negative as he was toward the traditions of the church? Was he right about sola Scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture? From time to time over the centuries and in our own day, some Protestants have left their churches to go back to the Roman church, or to Eastern Orthodoxy. They do this for many reasons. Some want to go back to smells and bells, as they say; they want a worship that’s more aesthetically pleasing. But a more fundamental reason is that many of them have come to doubt sola Scriptura. That’s the issue that comes up again and again when you talk to former Protestants who have gone into the Roman church. Is sola Scriptura true? Or, to put the point most sharply: is sola Scriptura scriptural?

The Roman Catholics have always said no, Scripture is not sufficient. They employ mainly two arguments. (1) The church, they say, is older than the Bible, and it was the church that gave the Bible its authority. So the authority of the church is greater than the authority of the Bible. (2) They say that an authoritative Bible is of no use without an authoritative interpretation, and that interpretation comes through the church.

This is an important question, and I don’t want to leave you tonight without an answer to it. For an answer, let us go back to the beginning of God’s relationship to Israel, back to the book of Exodus. After God broughtIsrael out from slavery in Egypt by his mighty hand and strong arm, he met with them at Mount Sinai. It was a fearsome meeting. The people saw terrible lightnings, heard awful thunders {You may think you’ve seen some awful thunders and lightnings, but most likely you haven’t seen or heard anything like these], and heard supernatural trumpet sounds. The whole mountain was full of smoke, for the Lord came down on it in the form of a fire. Moses warned the people, stay away from the mountain, or the Lord will break out against you. Then the people heard the voice of God speaking the Ten Commandments.

Would you enjoy that, having the Lord speak to you directly some Sunday morning instead of your pastor? A lot of people today say that they’d like to have God talk to them directly, rather than through the Bible. ButIsrael thought differently. The people said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

So Moses went up to talk to God. And when he came down the mountain, just like Charleton Heston in the movie, he brought with him two tables of stone, which Ex. 31:18 describes as “the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” These were God’s words, and God’s writing. Listen to God speak: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods before me.” The Ten Commandments, with the other documents that make up the Bible, were to be the fundamental written constitution of God’s people, written by the finger of God, or, as Paul later puts it, spoken by the breath of God, God-breathed. These were the words of that fearsome God.

Now let’s imagine somebody in Israel saying, “well, the nation of Israel extisted before the Ten Commandments. We are the ones who recognized their authority, and so our authority must be greater than theirs.” What do you imagine Moses would have said? “You are out of your mind! You’re playing silly games with words.” God himself wrote those commandments with his own finger. Over and over again—on most any page of Deuteronomy, he tells us to obey all  the statutes, testimonies, ordinances, laws, judgments, decrees—all that wonderful redundancy—every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Could anybody for a minute imagine that the people of Israel, the church, had greater authority than those ordinances? The supposition is utterly absurd.

And twice in Deuteronomy, the Lord warns Israel against adding to or subtracting anything from his written Word. What does that mean? “You dare not subtract” means that everything says is supremely authoritative. Israelis not to live by bread alone, but by every Word of God. And what does it mean that “you shall not add?” It means that you must not mix in with God’s Word any of your own ideas. God’s truth is not a mixture of his ideas and yours. It is his ideas alone, sola Scriptura. So Jesus rebukes the Pharisees who added to God’s Word by their traditions, and he quotes the prophet Isaiah: “These people draw near me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isa. 29:13). Jesus was like Luther in that he too was a new broom, sweeping out the old traditions and bringing in the fresh and pure Word of God, and for that the Jews delivered him to the Romans to die. Jesus was like Luther? Better to say that Luther was like him.

Can the church imagine, then, that they give authority to Scripture? Certainly not. God gave Scripture to the church, and he told us “get under it.”  And anybody who loves God will get under his Word. In the Isaiah passage, living by human rules is a heart problem. If your heart is with God, your greatest passion will be to live by his Word. And you won’t make silly arguments about how your authority is greater than his.

What about the argument that an infallible book needs an infallible interpreter? No. The chief rule of interpretation is that the interpreter is subject to the text. The text tells the interpreter what to say, not the other way around. And if an infallible text needs an infallible interpreter, then that interpreter needs an infallible interpreter, and that interpreter needs an infallible interpreter, ad infinitum. No. Interpretation has a beginning and an ending. It begins with the text, and it ends by stating the meaning of the text. And that’s all there is to it.

So there we have it. God has chosen to rule his church, not by the living voice of a long tradition of human teachers, but by his sufficient written Word. Luther was right to stand on that Word. Sola Scriptura is scriptural.

It was on that Word, sola Scriptura, that Luther based the other great Reformation solas: solo Christo: salvation only through the righteousness of Christ, applied to us. Sola gratia: salvation through Christ is a free gift of God; not by our works, lest anyone should boast. Sola fide: we receive that grace through faith, simply receiving God’s gift, not trying to give him anything in return. And soli deo gloria: since salvation is entirely by Christ, through grace, by faith, the glory goes to God alone.

Without sola Scriptura, we don’t have the others. Obviously Scripture is the place where we learn about these other doctrines. And somewhat less obviously, written revelation is the only place where we could find out something like this. If salvation is entirely gracious, entirely a gift of God, how could we know it, unless God told us? Only God can tell us when he intends to give a gift. And we can be certain about that gift only if the message is certain. And we can have no certainty if the message contains the Word of God and the ideas of men all mixed up together. That’s one reason Roman Catholics don’t have much assurance of salvation. They rely on a big thing called tradition, which includes both Scripture and human theology down through the years. In Roman Catholicism, there is no sure and certain word of promise.

When we apply the sola Scriptura principle to worship, we sometimes call it the “regulative principle.” The regulative principle can be found in the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though the phrase “regulative principle” probably comes from the nineteenth. The Westminster Confession of Faith says,

But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture. (21.1; cf. 1.6, 20.2)

So what the regulative principle says is that everything we do in worship must be biblical. It must be “prescribed,” warranted, required by Scripture. Now the writers of the Confession understood that in order to do everything Scripture prescribes, we must do some other things that Scripture does not prescribe. For instance, Scripture commands us to meet together for worship; but it does not prescribe the time or place, what clothes we should wear, how many hymns we should sing, or even what precise words we should use in song or sermon or prayer. So earlier in the Confession it says,

There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (1.6)

In other words, when Scripture tells us to do something, but doesn’t tell us exactly how to do it, and when, and where, we use our God-given human reason within the general boundaries of the Word. So there has arisen a distinction between the elements of worship, the things Scripture prescribes, and the circumstances of worship, the things we must work out for ourselves in carrying out the elements.

That distinction is legitimate up to a point. In the Puritan theology, however, that distinction has given rise to a very complicated theory in which there must be a scripturally prescribed list of elements for every distinct form of worship (tabernacle, temple, synagogue, family worship, private worship, civic worship, NT church worship, etc.), and three different kinds of circumstances, only some of which are within the discretion of the church. This large theory, in my judgment, is not found in the Confession, though it is found in other writings of the Confession’s authors. I don’t think this larger theory is biblical, and I don’t think it carries any authority in Presbyterian churches, though it has played a major role in the history of Presbyterian worship. If you’re interested in that issue, I have a paper on the subject I can e-mail to you, but I don’t think we need to deal with it any further here.

But the Confession is certainly right in emphasizing sola Scriptura as our principle of worship, as in all of life. In worship, as everywhere else (because all of life if worship in one sense; all of life is giving our bodies as living sacrifices, which is our spiritual worship, Rom. 12:1-2), we seek to do God’’ will, not our own, and we find his will in his Word. Yes, we need to use our minds in addressing matters where Scripture is silent: when and where to worship, for how long, with what themes, etc. But even in planning those matters, we’ve got to have the Bible in mind. For instance, the Bible says worship is to be edifying. So we’d better not schedule our services at four in the morning. The great passion of our worship planning should be, is what we’re doing biblical? Does it please God?

What will sola Scriptura worship look like in our time? Some would argue that such worship would look very old fashioned. Some say that if we want to govern worship entirely by Scripture, we will have to turn back the clock and worship as our Puritan forefathers did: singing only Psalm arrangements, without accompaniment, in an utterly plain worship area. This argument is built on the complicated theory of elements and circumstances I rejected earlier.

Others argue that we should worship as Calvin did, following a certain liturgical order every week with elaborate scripted prayers and congregational responses. In my judgment, there is much to be said for that style of worship, and we can learn from it; but certainly Scripture doesn’t prescribe it. The most we can say is that it represents a wise ordering of circumstances for one period of history. It might be the best choice for some congregations in our own day. But Scripture does not require us to worship according to that pattern.

The fact is that we need to rethink worship in every generation. What Calvin and the Puritans did for their time, we must do for ours. Let me make this point emphatically: Sola Scriptura does not mean traditionalism. It doesn’t mean adhering blindly to the models of the past. In fact, it is just the opposite. As with Luther, Sola Scriptura tells us to criticize tradition. It is that new broom that Luther and the other Reformers used to sweep the church clean.

Darryl Hart, one writer with whom I’ve locked horns on several occasions complains that modern evangelicals are of two minds. They are very conservative on matters like abortion, but they are very liberal on matters of worship, seeking innovation, contemporary music, etc. He urges them to be more consistently conservative: if they are conservative about abortion, he thinks, they ought to be conservative about worship as well. Here Prof. Hart misses something very central, very basic, very important: the rule for Christians is neither conservativism nor liberalism. The rule is Scripture. Our passion as Christians should not be to be as conservative as possible, or as liberal and up-do-date as possible, but to be as biblical as possible. Sola Scriptura! Sometimes that may mean looking old-fashioned to the world. Sometimes it may mean pursuing the latest means of communication. We must be willing to be inconsistent, in terms of the world’s categories, to be consistent in terms of Scripture. Unfortunately, Hart and similar critics adopt the world’s categories here. And despite their desire to be conservative, they fail to honor the fundamental principle of Reformed worship, sola Scriptura.

Others use a somewhat different argument, trying to convince us to worship in an old fashioned way. Writers like Ken Myers, David Wells, Michael Horton, and others argue that modern culture is so depraved, so terrible, that we should avoid using any elements of it in our worship. Therefore we should worship in a way that will appear to be old fashioned to our culture, if only to bear witness against that culture. Certainly I agree that much in our culture is wretched and worthless—“idols for destruction” to cite Herbert Schlossberg. But it is no worse, I think, than first-century Judaism or the Roman empire of Paul’s time. And yet Paul was willing to become as a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles. He didn’t join in their sins, but he used their languages and customs to communicate with them. Again: our standard is not someone’s theory of culture, derived from history and sociology. Our standard is God’s Word, and God’s Word only. Sola Scriptura.

The problem for us, brothers and sisters, is that nearly five hundred years after Luther’s great insight, we now have five hundred years of Protestant tradition. We have had our own scholars, doctors, councils and confessions. No popes, thank goodness, but are there perhaps some thinkers in our past history that we regard almost as highly, perhaps more highly, than medieval Christians regarded the popes? And then there’s the tradition of our local churches—the way things have always been done. And there are the traditions of our own individual lives, what we often call our “comfort zone.”

What shall we do with all this tradition? Respect it, first of all. Be thankful for it. Be confident that it is nowhere near as messed up as the traditions Luther wrestled with. I confess to you that I need to become more of a heritage person; I need to learn from this tradition, to grow through its riches. But I hope I’ll never get to the point where I stop measuring tradition by this book, the Bible. Tradition is wonderful, but this is the Word of God. Tradition has much to teach us, but this is God talking. God gave us this book; we didn’t give it to ourselves. And God says to us, as he said to Israel under Moses: “Get under it.” Measure your life by this book: your thoughts, your words, your actions, your worship.

Everything in worship must be biblical. Where Scripture is silent, we should use whatever means are available in our time and place to pursue biblical values in worship. Should we use a sound system where people have a hard time hearing? Of course. Scripture doesn’t mention sound systems, but Scripture certainly wants us to hear God’s Word. Should we use contemporary music? Scripture doesn’t say yes or no to that specific question. But it is mightily concerned with encouraging heartfelt praise from God’s people, with multiplying musical instruments in God’s praise (Psm. 150), with shouting God’s praise. In many situations today, those values will motivate us to use some contemporary music. We want to choose music that doesn’t detract from the reverence and awe we owe to God, that communicates the gospel clearly, that challenges and builds up God’s people. But much contemporary music, in my judgment, expresses those values.

That’s what worship planning meetings should be like: everybody measuring everything by biblical standards. That’s the way to worship in Spirit and Truth. That’s the way to really please God as we worship Him.


2. Sola Fide

In the last lecture, I focused on God’s Word in Scripture as the rule of our worship. In worship, God meets with human beings, and they acknowledge him as their covenant Lord. So what he says to us must govern our worship. We want to please him, not ourselves; so the principle of our worship is sola Scriptura, “by Scripture alone.” In this message, I will move on to the second of the five solas, sola fide, “by faith alone.”

The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines “faith in Jesus Christ” as “a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel” (Q&A 86). For the Reformers, as for Paul, faith is always opposed to works and law (Rom. 3:21-5:11). We are not saved by keeping the law or by doing good works, but only by receiving God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus, that is, by faith.

It’s tempting, I know, to think of faith as just another kind of good work, as if it were the one thing we can do to earn God’s favor. But that’s not the Bible’s teaching. In itself, our faith, like the rest of our works, is contaminated by sin. It wavers, it cries out, as the troubled father cried out to Jesus in Mark 9:24, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” Our faith is mixed with sin and deserves no favor from God. We can’t earn our way into heaven by faith, any more than we can earn it by giving to the poor, writing good books, or eating a Kosher diet. Why, then, is faith so important? Because faith connects us with Jesus. It is receiving and resting on Christ. Our faith doesn’t merit salvation, but Jesus does.

So when we have faith, when we believe in Christ, we are saying that we have no hope in ourselves, no hope even in our faith, only in Jesus. We are justified by faith, as Paul says, “apart from observing the law” (Rom. 3:28). So our salvation is only by faith, sola fide.

I mentioned in the first message the close relationship between worship and salvation. When we come to worship, that’s what we should be telling God: I have no hope in myself, only in Jesus. I trust in his complete sacrifice on the cross for me. Worship should give us frequent opportunity to say that to God, and it should be saturated with the sense that without Jesus we are nothing.

Here we must make a distinction which is somewhat fine, but also very important. Worship should glorify God, but it does not save us. I repeat: Worship is something we do to glorify God, but not something we do to gain salvation.

What efforts Satan puts in to fuzzy up that distinction, to confuse it. We bring our gifts for the offering plate, we offer our voices in praise, we listen hard to the Word of God, we meditate on the sacraments, and somewhere, in the back of our minds, Satan interjects the idea that all of this helps at least to insure our place in heaven.

What we need to remember is that worship is not the way of salvation, it is thanksgiving, eucharist: thanksgiving for salvation already given. The early Christians met to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, his final victory over sin and death. They worshiped, not to turn God’s wrath into favor, but to thank him for placing their sins on Jesus. That is worship in faith, sola fide.

Let’s look at Scripture for a while to try to understand better how worship is thanksgiving, and therefore worship in faith.

We tend to think of worship and praise as favors we do for God, gifts that we bring to him, to make him happy. In a way, that’s true. In all of life we should bring glory to God. It’s right to think of worship as God-centered, as bringing him glory, as pleasing him.

But there is a problem here. Van Til called it the “full-bucket difficulty.” If God is all-glorious, how can we bring him more glory than he has already? If God owns everything, how can we do him any favors? If God enjoys perfect bliss, how can we make him happier than he is? What do our songs, offerings, and prayers really do for him?

So Scripture sometimes challenges our naïve view of worship. God comes to us and says, “I really don’t need it.”

So theologians speak of the aseity of God. That means that God is self-contained, self-existent, self-sufficient. Aseity simply means that God doesn’t need anything at all. He doesn’t need our praise or our worship. He is majestic and holy, the creator of all things, the Lord of all creation. He made us and made everything around us. Everything we possess, he possesses first. He is the landlord, and we are the tenants, the stewards. Anything he wants from us, he can take; because everything he wants from us, he has already. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it,” (Psm. 24:1). He owns everything because he made everything; he is the creator of all things in heaven, on earth, and in the sea.

Now God is unselfish, and he has given many things to us, so that in a real sense, we own them; they are our possessions. But when God gives us something, he doesn’t stop owning it. He is the ultimate owner; we are proximate owners. He is the sovereign Lord; we are the vassal kings, the stewards of God’s world.

So now we come to worship, and we bring gifts for God: sacrifices in the Old Testament, now what the New Testament calls sacrifices of praise, collections for the work of the church, and so on. But when we give to God, we give him only what he has first given us. And so when we give to God, he is not under obligation to pay us back. He says to Job, “Who has a claim against me that I must pay” (41:11)? Paul alludes to Job when he says “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”

So God is the first giver. We often talk about him as the first cause, and he is. And because he is the first cause, he is the first giver. We are second givers; he’s the first, always the first.

So in the most fundamental sense, he owes us nothing. Of course we must say more than that. Sometimes by his grace, God makes promises to us, and thereby obligates himself. He brings himself under obligation to us. Quite an amazing thing! But he doesn’t have to do that. He’s not obligated to become obligated. He is still the first giver, the one who doesn’t have to give us anything.

One of the problems in pagan worship, and, unfortunately, in the Roman Catholic worship of Luther’s day, is that they forget about God’s aseity: they ignore—or suppress—this truth about God. When Paul visited pagan Athens, with all its statues and shrines, he proclaimed the true God to them, saying he “does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” Pagans tend to have the idea that God needs our worship. They forget that God is the first giver.

Earlier in Scripture, Isaiah ridicules pagan worship. The sad thing is that this pagan worship took place in Israel, among God’s people, who certainly should have known better:

As for an idol, a craftsman casts it,

And a goldsmith overlays it with gold

And fashions silver chains for it.

A man too poor to present such an offering

Selects wood that will not rot.

He looks for a skilled craftsman

To set up an idol that will not topple. (40:19-20).

See, if you worship idols, you have to take care of them. You want it to look nice; an ugly god isn’t worth worshipping, so you take care to get the nicest decorations. And you have to use the best materials and the best craftsmanship. You don’t want your god to rot, and you don’t want your god to topple over. Think what a terrible embarrassment that would be. There you are, bowing down, and the thing comes crashing down and breaks in pieces. Theologically, I hope you’ve drawn the conclusion that these idols do not have the attribute of aseity. They have needs, big time needs. They are not the first givers; rather, they owe their very existence to the idol makers. So that it is ridiculous (God, through Isaiah, wants us to laugh here), ridiculous to compare these things to the true God.

Another of God’s jokes, his ridicule, comes a few chapters later (44:12-20). We read there of a carpenter who cuts down some wood:

It is man’s fuel for burning:

Some of it he takes and warms himself,

He kindles a fire and bakes bread.

But he also fashions a god and worships it;

He makes an idol and bows down to it.

Half of the wood he burns in the fire;

Over it he prepares his meal,

He roasts his meat and eats his fill.

He also warms himself and says,

“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”

From the rest he makes a god, his idol;

He bows down to it and worships.

He prays to it and says,

“Save me; you are my God.”

One stick of wood gets burned; the other stick of wood gets worshiped. What’s the difference between the two sticks of wood? Nothing; that’s the point. The idol owes its existence to a man, so it’s ridiculous that a man should worship it. Not only does idolatry remove worship from the true God, but it also dishonors God’s image in man. For ironically, the carpenter himself is a better image of God than the idol he has made. What an indignity for God’s image to bow before the image of something else!

But to get back to our theme of Thanksgiving, I want to go back to Psalm 50. For it is in Psalm 50 that we see the connection between God’s aseity and our thanksgiving, between God as the first giver and our response as thanksgivers.

The Mighty One, God, the LORD,

speaks and summons the earth

from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets.

From Zion, perfect in beauty,

God shines forth.

Our God comes and will not be silent;

a fire devours before him,

and around him a tempest rages.

He summons the heavens above,

and the earth, that he may judge his people:

“Gather to me my consecrated ones,

who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”

And the heavens proclaim his righteousness,

for God himself is judge.


“Hear, O my people, and I will speak,

O Israel, and I will testify against you:

I am God, your God.

I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices

or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.

I have no need of a bull from your stall

or of goats from your pens,

for every animal of the forest is mine,

and the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know every bird in the mountains,

and the creatures of the field are mine.

If I were hungry I would not tell you,

for the world is mine, and all that is in it.

Do I eat the flesh of bulls

or drink the blood of goats?

Sacrifice thank offerings to God,

fulfill your vows to the Most High,

and call upon me in the day of trouble;

I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”


But to the wicked, God says:


“What right have you to recite my laws

or take my covenant on your lips?

You hate my instruction

and cast my words behind you.

When you see a thief, you join with him;

you throw in your lot with adulterers.

You use your mouth for evil

and harness your tongue to deceit.

You speak continually against your brother

and slander your own mother’s son.

These things you have done and I kept silent;

you thought I was altogether like you.

But I will rebuke you

and accuse you to your face.

“Consider this, you who forget God,

or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue:

He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me,

and he prepares the way

so that I may show him the salvation of God.”

The Psalm begins with an image of divine judgment. When the Lord comes to judge his people, he looks fearsome, as he did on Mt. Sinai, when Israel met him there after their Exodus from Egypt: fire and tempest surround him. And as in Deuteronomy, he summons the heavens and the earth as witnesses against Israel.

He is judging them for their hypocritical, formal worship. Israel was meticulous about bringing the proper sacrifices and offerings, but many of them had little idea of what true worship was all about. They had drawn a line between life and worship. They read the laws of God, but didn’t keep them. They hated God’s instruction. They joined with thieves and adulterers, they used their mouths for deceit and slander.

In the middle of the Psalm, God proclaims his aseity: He doesn’t need a bull from their stall, or goats from their pens. He owns every animal of the forest, the cattle on a thousand hills, all the birds, all the creatures of the field. Go to the stall to find a bull for sacrifice. God says, that’s mine already. And you say, “Oh, I’m sorry, Lord. I’ll try another one.” “That’s mine, too.” “Well, a goat then.” “That’s mine, too.” “Well, what about an ibex, or an alpaca, or an okapi [giraffe family; committee project], or a wallaby.” “That’s mine, too.” Oh.

And what do you think God wants to do with these animals? You think he eats them? Is he hungering for a Whopper? Of course not. And if he was, he wouldn’t ask you to get him one; he’d just reach down himself. Pagans sometimes think that the gods eat the sacrifices and nourish themselves. Sometimes that involves a bit of chicanery: the priest eats it and says that the god ate it. But our God doesn’t eat meat and drink blood. He doesn’t eat anything. He is a se. He doesn’t need it.

Then what is the point of worship, anyway? It’s not enriching God, and it’s not nourishing him. So what is it? In verses 14-15, the Psalmist tells us:

Sacrifice thank offerings to God,

Fulfill your vows to the Most High,

And call upon me in the day of trouble;

I will deliver you, and you will glorify me.

He mentions four elements of worship: thanksgiving, obedience, prayer, and then thanksgiving again. The first thanksgiving refers to the thank offering. The thank offering, a form of peace offering, was a sacrifice that was partly burned to the Lord, partly eaten by the priests and the worshiper. It was, like our Lord’s Supper, a dinner with God.  (The Lord’s Supper, too, is a kind of thaksgiving, a eucharist. Paul speaks of the “cup of thanksgiving” in 1 Cor. 10:16.) An Israelite would bring a thank offering when he wanted to thank God for some special blessing in his life. And God was willing to accept that offering, not because he needed it, but because he deserved it. This offering was an appropriate response to God’s mercy. And we should be alert too, to opportunities we have to bring offerings before the Lord as expressions of thanks. What has God done for you this year? You can’t ever repay him, but maybe you can put a little extra in the collection plate. We worship God to express our thanks.

Secondly, the Psalmist speaks of obedience, keeping vows. A vow is a promise we make to God. Often a worshiper would bring a votive offering, a vow offering, to seal a promise that he made before God. Have you made God any promises lately? Well, if you’re a believer you have certainly promised to serve Jesus as your Lord and trust him as your savior. If you’re a church member, you’ve promised to be faithful to your church. If you’re married, you’ve promised God to love, honor, and maybe obey someone till death. If you’ve baptized a child, you’ve promised to raise him or her in the knowledge of Christ. But we live in a time when for most people vows mean nothing. Consider the rate of divorce. I recall back in the 1980s when the air controllers went on strike after promising not to. President Reagan fired them all! Most commentators said that the President should never have taken those vows so seriously. Unlike those commentators, however, God takes vows very seriously. Perhaps we should remind ourselves of how seriously we take our vows, by making a small sacrifice from time to time, a votive offering. Bring something extra to God to show him you mean business.

As with the other elements, a vow is not a favor we do for God. It’s an obligation we take on ourselves. God doesn’t need our vows. He can accomplish his purposes without them. Our vows arise out of thanksgiving. When we see how much God has done for us, we respond by promising to do something for him, out of gratefulness. But the vow is not the way of salvation; it is thanksgiving for salvation. It is faith.

The third element is prayer: call on me in the day of trouble. We don’t do this often enough either, for ourselves or for others. You know what Jesus is doing today? Many things. But what Scripture tells us is that he’s praying, interceding for his people. Do you believe that God delivers his people from trouble in answer to prayer? He does.

God doesn’t need our prayers, any more than he needs our vows. But he graciously promises to answer our prayers. Prayer is not a way for us to save ourselves. From God’s side it is one of the blessings of salvation. From our side, it is part of our thankful response to salvation. It is prayer in faith.

And then, after he delivers us from trouble, we worship again to glorify him, thank him, for his deliverance. So the pattern: thanksgiving, vows, prayer, thanksgiving. Worship is surrounded by thanksgiving. This is worship that recognizes God’s aseity. It doesn’t try to meet God’s needs. It recognizes instead that we have needs that only God can meet. In elements two and three, we bring our lives before the Lord, in promises and prayer. In elements one and four, we offer thanks.

This worship is theocentric, vertical, but to a surprising degree it is also anthropocentric, horizontal. It is to God that we sacrifice our offerings, to him that we call in trouble, and him that we glorify for deliverance. On the other hand, this worship speaks over and over of blessings for the worshiper, for us. We thank him for blessing usWe keep our promises before him. We call for help and receive it.

It is God’s aseity that undergirds both dimensions of worship. Obviously it supports the vertical dimension. A God who is a se, self-contained, is truly majestic, exalted. He is worthy of worship, and he is the only God worthy of worship. But God’s aseity also undergirds the horizontal dimension. To put the point briefly: he doesn’t need worship, but we do. Worship ministers to our needs, not to needs of God. To say that is not to disparage the vertical dimension. To two dimensions reinforce one another. Worship best glorifies God when it ministers to people; and we minister to people best when we teach them to look to God for blessing, rather than themselves.

Biblical worship, then, as distinguished from pagan worship, is full of thanksgiving. When you are thankful, you come before God and say, “I know I can give you nothing you don’t have already. I know that you’ve given me all that I have, and I glorify you in thanks.” The thankful worshiper says, “I know I should obey you, because this is your world. I should keep my promises. I shouldn’t be joining in with theives, adulterers, blasphemers and deceivers. You have been so very kind to me; I must behave as you wish.” And he adds, “I continue to need you every day. Please deliver me from trouble, for I have no other hope. If you, the owner of all things, aren’t with me, no one will be; and if you are for me, nobody can be against me.”

Another way of making the same point is this: Worship of an a se God is worship that recognizes grace. The worshiper stands in amazement, saying “God didn’t need to bless me, but he did. Thank you, Lord.” That’s the gospel, isn’t it? God didn’t have to bless me, didn’t need to, but he did. He sent his own Son to die for me, when I was dead in sin. God did that simply because he loved me. He didn’t compromise his majesty by saving me; rather, he showed how great he really was. Because he is a se, he can be gracious. Because he is a se, he can be kind when he doesn’t need to be, merciful to creatures who cannot return the favor.

Grace and thankfulness go together. Because grace gives us everything, all the rest of life is thanksgiving.

That’s what it means to worship in faith, to worship sola fide. In faith, all our worship is thanksgiving to God, for the infinite blessings he has freely given us in Christ.

Is that the way it is with you? There are those moments when we become aware of how unthankful we are. Usually we don’t find that out for ourselves; somebody else has to tell us. Next time you are embarrassed by your lack of thankfulness to God, think about who he is. He is the one who owns everything, who needs nothing, and who has given you everything you have, and who, even though he didn’t have to, has taken you from the hopelessness of spiritual death to the ecstatic joy of eternal life with him. We cannot pay him back. The only thing, the only thing left for us, is thanksgiving.


3. Solo Christo

We saw in my last message that biblical worship is Gospel-centered: it’s not the way we earn salvation; it is thanksgiving for the salvation God has given us. And so worship is by faith. In worship, our faith receives what God gives. In worship, we tell God over and over again, “I have nothing you need, but you have everything I need. And you have richly supplied all my needs in Christ.”

The Gospel, of course, is the good news of Christ, and so we must move quickly to the third of the Reformation solas, solo Christo, by Christ alone. All who profess Christianity, of course, confess Christ as Lord and Savior. But the Reformers believed that the Roman Church of their day detracted from Christ as the only source of salvation.

The question the Reformers raised is, on what basis does God declare us to be righteous? They recognized that no unrighteous, no wicked person can enter Heaven. God is perfectly just. He does not reward the wicked or curse the righteous. He saves only the righteous.

But the problem is that we are not righteous. The apostle Paul says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” After he surveyed the moral state of the Jews and Gentiles, he said,

There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands,

no one who seeks God.

All have turned away, they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10-12)

All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags, says Isaiah (64:6). We are no better than mankind before the flood, of whom God says, “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5).

So our sin has left us utterly hopeless before God. We can’t claim anything from him. We don’t deserve even the slightest amount of favor from him. On the basis of what we are, we can expect only eternal punishment, for having offended a God of infinite dignity, justice, and love. So Scripture utterly humbles us, it takes away all our pride. This teaching is terribly offensive to non-Christians, but it is absolutely biblical and therefore absolutely true. And we all know that it’s true when we look honestly into our hearts.

Is there any hope at all? Certainly not in ourselves. There is nothing we can do. But God’s own love has found a way.

You remember that in Genesis 2, God told Adam not to eat a certain fruit, saying “when you eat of it you will surely die” (2:17). Adam and Eve did eat, as we know. If we didn’t know the story, we would have expected them to die right then and there. But amazingly they didn’t. Indeed, God came and promised them continuing life. He pronounced a curse on the ground, that it would produce thorns and thistles. But nevertheless, Adam would grow food, keeping people alive. To Eve, God decreed pain in childbearing. But the wonderful thing is that there would be children. No immediate death, but life; not only life, but new lives, children. And not only that, but one child, one “seed of the woman,” would destroy the serpent, the devil. That seed would be the savior, the redeemer.

Adam believed that promise. He named his wife Eve, the mother of all living. He believed that she would bear children, just as God has said. And when Cain was born, Eve also spoke in faith, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man” (4:1). In the birth of that baby, she saw that God was keeping his promise.

This is the wonderful, extravagant hope that God gave to us: that even though every inclination of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil all the time, God will still show us mercy through that baby. This is the central theme of all Scripture. The Old Testament looks forward to this wonderful child, and the New Testament says he has come! God shows his mercy in that he gives his only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins.

That’s the answer to Luther’s question. How can God receive sinners into heaven? On what basis does he declare us fit to enter his presence, when we know that in our flesh dwells no good thing? The answer is Jesus Christ. You know the “diagnostic question” used by Evangelism Explosion: if God asks “why should I let you into Heaven?” the only answer is Jesus. Not our works, but Jesus. Not our works plus Jesus, but Jesus. Not even the works that God enables us to do through his Spirit—for even they fall far short of his standards—but Jesus.

Now the promise of a Redeemer was central to the worship of God from the very earliest times. When men “began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26) in the time of Seth, certainly they remembered that promise, looking ahead to the Redeemer. Even earlier, from the time of Cain and Abel, people worshiped God by bringing animal sacrifices, and this became the central part of the worship of the tabernacle and temple in Israel. Certainly they knew that no animal could be the Redeemer. The Redeemer must be human, a seed of woman. But God told them that without shedding of blood there could be no forgiveness, and he ordained the deaths of animals to prepare the people for the death of his Son, the only death that could atone for sin.

But in the New Testament we learn that the Redeemer has come. So the most significant fact about worship in the New Testament is that its focus is on Jesus. Jesus comes as the Lord of the covenant. He is Yahweh, Jehovah, come in the flesh. He brings to his people a deliverance greater than the Old Testament deliverance from Egyptian slavery; Jesus delivers his people from sin. He makes them into a new people of God (see 1 Pet. 2:9) encompassing Jew and Gentile in one body to give him worship.

From a New Testament perspective, we can see all the various elements of Old Testament worship pointing to Jesus. In Jesus, we meet with God, John 1:14, as the Jews met with God at the tabernacle. Jesus is also the ultimate sacrifice for sin and therefore brings an end to the temple offerings of bulls and goats, Heb. 10:1-18, Eph. 5:2, Mark 10:45. The Old Testament sacrifices had to be made every day, over and over again, showing their insufficiency to take away sin. But Jesus’s sacrifice of himself on the cross dealt with sin “once for all.” His sacrifice suffices to make his people holy, Heb. 10:10.

Jesus is also the one who brings the ultimate sacrifice; that is to say, he is the ultimate priest. Being both God and man, he is the ultimate mediator, the only such mediator, between God and man, 1 Tim. 2:5. The Book of Hebrews (6:13-8:13) calls Jesus a priest, not after the order of Aaron, but after the order of Melchizedek, the mysterious priest who “brought out bread and wine” to Abraham in Gen. 14:18-20, and to whom Abraham presented tithes. In the Genesis narrative, Melchizedek appears out of nowhere: no genealogy, nothing said of his life before or after his meeting with Abraham. Similarly, says the writer to the Hebrews, Jesus is not connected with the tribe of Levi or the sons of Aaron. He begins a whole new priesthood, “not on the basis of regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life,” 7:16. And his priesthood is permanent, because he “lives forever,” 7:24. Unlike the Aaronic priests, he does not lose his office because of death.Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to  intercede for them. (verse 25)

Hebrews also tells us that Jesus, as the ultimate high priest, ministers at a tabernacle which is far greater than the tabernacle or temple of the Old Testament. The heavenly tabernacle, the pattern of the earthly tabernacle, is the ultimate dwelling of God’s presence. For us to enjoy eternal fellowship with God, our sins must be dealt with in that eternal tabernacle. Jesus as the ultimate high priest brings his own blood to the heavenly tabernacle as the one perfect and permanent sacrifice for sin; see 9:11-28.

In a somewhat different use of the symbols, Jesus is God’s tabernacle and temple. He is the one in whom God tabernacled with his people, John 1:14. After casting out the salesmen from the temple at Jerusalem, the Jews asked him for a miraculous sign of his authority.

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jews replied, “it has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19-22)

Jesus is God’s dwelling among men. The purpose of the temple was to point forward to him. In the final consummation of history, the “New Jerusalem,” there will be no temple, for “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple,” Rev. 21:22.

Therefore all the tabernacle and temple furniture speak of Christ (9:1-5). The altar of burnt offering speaks of his sacrifice of himself. The laver, like the sacrament of baptism, speaks of Christ as the priest who is perfectly clean, free from any defilement, and who cleanses his people. The lampstand represents Christ as the light of the world. The showbread and the manna, like the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, presents Christ as the one who feeds his people. The incense altar and Aaron’s rod represent Christ as the priest whose prayers for his people always ascend to the Father’s throne. The holiest place was opened to us at the death of Christ, when the veil of the temple was torn in two. Through Christ, we enter boldly, Heb. 10:19-25. The ark, God’s throne in Israel, represents Jesus as “God with us,” Immanuel. The tablets of the law speak of Christ as God’s eternal word.

Jesus is also “Lord of the Sabbath,” Matt. 12:8, and the focal point of the annual feasts. He is the Passover lamb, John 1:29, 1 Cor. 5:7. He is the one who sends his Spirit on Pentecost to empower the church. He fulfills the Day of Atonement by bringing the ultimate blood-sacrifice to God in the holiest place. He embodies the Feast of Tabernacles, as he dwells forever with his people in human flesh.

Jesus is also the true Israel, the faithful remnant of God’s people. Those in him are the new Israel, the “Israel of God,” Gal. 6:16, the heirs of God’s promises to Abraham. Christians, therefore, worship God in the consciousness that they are God’s elect, God’s people, chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, Eph. 1:4. Like Israel at Mount Sinai, we have assembled in God’s presence. But just as the earthly tabernacle was an image of a far greater tabernacle in heaven, so the assembly at Sinai was an image of a far greater assembly in heaven. We are part of that greater assembly:

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel, Heb. 12:22-24.

We also have a greater circumcision, separating us from all the nations of the earth as God’s holy people. Against those who insisted that Christians must be circumcised, Paul replies,

For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh, Phil. 3:3.

In Christ we are not only the true Israel; we are priests. As he is the ultimate high priest, we are all called to be his priestly people, 1 Pet. 2:5, 9, Rev. 1:6, 5:10, 20:6. In the New Testament church, there is no special group of priests as in Old Testament Israel. Rather, we all bring to God “spiritual sacrifices” of praise, prayer, godly behavior, and of our whole existence, Rom. 12:1, Phil. 2:17, 4:18, Heb. 13:15-16.

Not only are we priests, but we are also temples. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor. 6:19. For this reason, Paul teaches, they should not be defiled by sexual sin. Or, to put it somewhat differently, the church as a whole is God’s temple, not to be defiled by division or pride, 1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:19, Eph. 2:21. But it is only “in him” (Christ) that we are joined to one another as a holy temple. We are a temple only insofar as we are the body of Christ.

Clearly, then, Christian worship should be full of Christ. We come to the Father only by him, John 14:6. In worship we look to him as our all-sufficient Lord and savior. Christ must be inescapably prominent, pervasive, in every occasion of Christian worship.

He is the object of our worship. Imagine that, worshiping a man! The first two of the Ten Commandments told Israel that they should never worship anything in creation, only God. Worship of anything else is idolatry. But Jesus’ disciples, good Jews who knew the commandments, found themselves worshiping Jesus and telling others to do so.

He is the subject of worship. As we meet, we celebrate his Resurrection and thank him for all he has done for us. We encourage one another by the promises of the Gospel. We challenge unbelievers to believe the Gospel.

The sacraments speak of his body and blood, given for us on the cross. We eat and drink, knowing that his sacrifice nourishes us, and that it gives us a little taste of the great banquet to come.

We offer prayer in his name, and only in his name. We love one another as he has loved us. Jesus Christ defines every aspect of our worship.

And– one more thing– Jesus is our worship leader. Paul in Rom. 15:9, citing the Old Testament (2 Sam. 22:50, Psm. 18:49; compare Psm. 22:25), finds Jesus singing God’s praise in the worshiping congregation:

Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;

I will sing hymns to your name.

Jesus himself is present when we worship, singing to the Father and leading us in praise.

My only application is that our worship ought to be absolutely full of Christ. You don’t need to worry about becoming too Christ-centered. You do need to worry about substituting something else for Jesus. Just as Satan tempts us to substitute tradition for God’s Word, and works for faith, so he dearly loves to see us substitute the world’s wisdom for the riches of Christ. This is a major theme of the Corinthian letters, for example. When Paul came to Corinth, he resolved to “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The Corinthians, however, thought that Paul was too simplistic. So some of them checked out Greek philosophy and Jewish miracle workers, and others preferred Christian teachers that were more sophisticated. Similarly today, Christians seek answers to their deep needs from psychology, economics, the arts and entertainments, history, and, as we’ve seen, Christian tradition. There is value in all these things, but salvation is only in Christ. And that salvation should govern our thinking in all areas of life. Whatever we do, “whether in word or deed, “ we should “do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). We should “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

In worship, we should learn how to do this, and we should see how it is done. Preaching should show us how all of life can be brought under Jesus’ Lordship, how psychology, economics, the arts and entertainments, history, tradition, everything changes when we bring it under the wisdom of Jesus. And in worship itself, we should use music that’s been brought under Jesus’s Lordship: music that brings Him before us. We should use words that reveal him: his commands, his love. We should express love for him. And worship leaders should be like Jesus in the way they relate to the congregation, showing love to church members and visitors alike. When we leave the service, people should know that we have been with Jesus.

There are two dangers here. One is that we will secularize our worship, substituting secular philosophy or psychology, for example, for the wisdom of Christ. The other is that we will present less than the full Christ. Some people think of Christ-centeredness as focusing entirely on the biblical history of redemption and not at all on the world we live in. They don’t like to talk about “application,” because they think application will detract from Christ. They think that if we spend time showing how Christ relates to politics or friendship or parenting that we are not Christ-centered any more.

But the biblical Christ is the Lord of all life. Scripture tells us not only to describe him, but to show how he is Lord of all things. The purpose of the Bible is “that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Christ makes a difference to every square inch of human life. In worship we should learn what difference he makes, and we should see how preachers, teachers, elders, deacons, worship leaders, singers and musicians apply that difference to the work of worship. If Christ cannot be applied to life, then he makes no difference. If he makes no difference, he is not the Christ of Scripture.

Indeed, he makes a supreme difference. The goal of all human life is Christ. Paul’s statement of the goal of his life in Phil. 3 applies to everything we do, but if it doesn’t apply to worship, what else can it apply to? Certainly when we worship God these statements should fill our hearts:

NIV Philippians 3:7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ– the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.


4.      Sola Gratia

As I said, I like the idea of discussing worship in connection with the solas of the Reformation: only by Scripture, only by faith, only by Christ, only by grace, only to the glory of God. But it is sometimes difficult for me to decide what topic should go under what heading. The three middle headings, especially, faith, Christ, and grace, are so inseparable that they are nearly interchangeable. Most anything that I discussed under faith could be discussed under Christ and under grace, and so on. That’s because we are really dealing with one doctrine here, from three different aspects: salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Salvation by faith alone, after all, simply means salvation by Christ alone. There is nothing special about faith, except that it receives Christ. And so the same thing can be said about salvation by grace alone. Grace simply means that we’re saved by God’s gift, not by any work of ours. And that gift is Christ, received by faith.

So what shall I say under the heading of sola gratia that I haven’t said under the others?

Let’s begin by observing that when people meet God in the Bible, and remember that meeting God always puts us into worship mode, they often have an overwhelming sense of grace. I think of the time Jacob met an angel, and wrestled with him, and came away with the knowledge that the angel was God. And he said with amazement, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (Gen. 32:30). The general rule was, as God said to Moses, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). But Jacob saw him! He even saw God’s face!

Moses did as well. After God told him that no one can see God and live, he put Moses in a cleft of a rock and covered him with his hand. Then God passed by Moses, and Moses saw his back parts, but not his face. But Jacob saw his face, and Moses did later, in Num. 12:8.

There are evidently some distinctions here that I don’t entirely understand. We ask, how is it that we are told that we can’t see God and live, even though Jacob, and Moses did see God’s face and live? A large part of the answer is grace.

Why is it that our lives are in danger in the presence of God? Think of Exodus 19, when the people of Israel were gathered around the holy mountain to meet with God. They had to put barriers around the mountain. If even an animal touched the mountain, they had to stone it to death. The Lord said to them, “the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them” (Ex. 19:24). The Lord almost sounds here like a wild beast.  What’s going on here? It’s not that God is some kind of monster, certainly. And it’s not merely that God is great and mysterious, though he is. The problem is sin. We dare not look on God’s face, because we are sinners, and we can expect only judgment.

From that mountain, God spoke the law, the Ten Commandments. And, as fitting special effects, he also showed the people thunder, lightning, smoke, and the blasts of some kind of supernatural trumpet. The people “stood at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). They weren’t even thinking about the danger of seeing God. Hearing him was bad enough. They know that they had worshiped false gods, taken God’s name in vain, broken the Sabbath, dishonored their parents, and so on.

Similarly, centuries later, Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up. Yes, he saw the Lord; but the sight of God was devastating: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isa. 6:5). People sometimes say that they would like to see God. “It isn’t good enough,” they say, “to hear his Word in the Bible. I want God to come and show himself to me personally and to speak to me personally. I want my own personal, private experience of God.” People like that have no idea what they are asking. When God meets with man, the experience is devastating.

Meeting God is so dangerous. You really can die from it. God told Moses that his brother Aaron, the high priest, would die if he went into the holiest part of the tabernacle at his own discretion. He could enter only once a year, bringing blood for his own sins and those of the people Lev. 16:1-2, and if he doesn’t do what he is supposed to do with the blood and the coals and the incense, he will die in there (verse 13). And do you remember what Paul says about people who take the Lord’s Supper unworthily? They can get sick and even die (1 Cor. 11:30).

But sometimes, as I said, people do see God and live. That too is an overwhelming experience. How amazed Jacob was that he had seen God’s face and his life was preserved. How did that happen? That didn’t just happen. Nothing just happens. We live in God’s world, not a world of chance. It was God himself who decided to preserve Jacob’s life. God loved Jacob. He was gracious to Jacob. Did Jacob deserve to live? Jacob didn’t think so. He got what he didn’t deserve. That’s what was so amazing about grace.

Same for Isaiah. After he cried “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips,” one of the angels, one of the seraphs, brought a live coal, and touched Isaiah’s lips, and said “Your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.” No sign that Isaiah did anything to please God. He knew he deserved to die. But God’s grace comes out of the blue and saves him.

Same for Moses who observed—what was it?—God’s “back parts?” Remember that God hid him in the cleft of a rock. Does that remind you of anything? Maybe the old timers will remember,

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,

where rivers of pleasure I see.

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock

That shadows a dry, thirsty land.

He hideth my life in the depths of his love,

And covers me there with his hand,

And covers me there with his hand.

You know how that song begins: “A wonderful savior is Jesus, my Lord.” Paul speaks too about the Rock that followed Israel in the wilderness. That’s interesting. There are several stories of rocks during the wilderness period. God gave them water from the Rock, Moses struck the Rock against God’s command. God hid Moses in the Rock. Paul thinks of it as one Rock that followed Israel. And then he says, “the Rock was Christ.” It was Jesus that hid Moses’ eyes so that he would not die from the vision of God. And so we also sing,

Rock of Ages, cleft for me.

Let me hide myself in thee.

Let the water and the blood,

From thy wounded side which flowed,

Be to me the double cure,

Cleanse me from its guilt and power.

Jesus can be frightening too. Once he gave his disciples some instructions on how to fish, after they had been up all night and had caught nothing. They let down their nets, and they caught so many fish the nets started to break. Then we read, “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man’” (Luke 5:8). When Jesus showed his power, Peter was frightened. He knew that this was no ordinary miracle worker. He knew that the one who produced the miraculous catch was the same one who appeared to Isaiah, high and lifted up. Peter knew he stood in the presence of God. And when we stand in the presence of God, we recognize ourselves as sinners, utterly unfit to stand in the presence of the holy God.

Jesus was that holy God, come in the flesh. Indeed, to see Jesus was to see the Father. But we know that he did not come that first time to judge the world, but to save it. So Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men” (verse 10). That is grace.

We’ve seen a number of people who met with God, who expected to die. But God himself saved them from death, and even made them his representatives, not because of anything in them, but only because of his great love. So when we meet with God in worship, we meet him by grace.

But it’s not so scary any more! Why is that? There is something different about meeting God today. Oh, we do meet God in worship today, never doubt that. Remember the unbeliever who visits the church in 1 Cor. 14:25 who falls down and exclaims, “God is really among you.” God really is among us when we meet to worship him. So why don’t we die? And if we live, why aren’t we afraid of dying? Maybe we should be afraid. Some writers on the subject of worship think we need more of a sense of fear and terror in present-day worship. They think that worship is too happy, too joyful. They don’t like the idea of celebration, because it detracts from the solemnity of worship, from the reverence and awe that are due to God.

Well, there are bad reasons for being fearless in worship. It is possible to trivialize worship, to make it into just a happy social time. But let us never forget that there are also very good reasons for not being afraid. We are not going to die, because Jesus has died for us. And the Bible very dramatically illustrates the implications of Jesus’ death for worship. When he died, the veil of the temple, the curtain that separated the Israelites from God, the curtain that only the high priest could enter, once a year, bearing blood—that veil was torn open. It was torn from top to bottom: from heaven, not from earth, by God, not man. And then the writer to the Hebrews said,

NIV Hebrews 10:19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another– and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Because Jesus has died for our sins, the way to God is wide open. His throne is not a scary place any more. We can enter boldly in prayer and in worship, in full assurance of faith. Our guilty consciences have been sprinkled away. Our bodies have been washed. There is no need to be afraid of God any more. That joy should motivate us to go to church, to meet with God. Israel didn’t want to meet with God, for they were terrified. Because of Jesus, we should be eager to meet with God and with his people, for our encouragement.

I must warn you here that there are some writers on worship who will really lead you astray on this point if you allow them to. One critic of contemporary worship actually objects to the idea that we should draw near to God and ask him to draw near to us. He thinks that worship songs that talk about drawing near are Gnostic: that they seek closeness to God apart from redemption. That gentleman, in my estimation, needs to read his Bible more. The Bible continually calls us to draw near to God (Psm. 69:18, 73:28, 119:151, 148:14, and of course Heb. 10:22). Perhaps the gentleman believes that contemporary worship song writers want us to draw near apart from Christ; but he has no right to presume that. He has no right to suspect their motives, or the motives of worship leaders who use those songs, or the motives of the people who sing them. This writer to the contrary notwithstanding, God calls us to meet with him through Christ, in joy, as well as in reverence and awe.

Now God is still God. He is majestic and holy. He deserves fear, at least in the sense of reverence, as the author of Hebrews says later (12:28). He is still a “consuming fire,” verse 29. And there are still bad things that happen in worship when people come into his presence and despise him. Remember that you can die from taking the Lord’s Supper unworthily. Like so many things in the Christian life, it’s a matter of balance. God is our gracious Father, but he is not to be trifled with.

So writers on the subject of worship have a little battle going. Should we conduct worship in great solemnity, singing long Psalms in minor keys, with scripted liturgies and somber demeanors, to remind ourselves of God’s awesome transcendence and holiness? Should we come into his presence with an overwhelming awareness of our own sin and spend time in confession, repentance, and absolution, before expressing, perhaps, some joy, but always with restraint?

Or should we make worship a great celebration, a joyful, happy reunion with our Heavenly Father and our brothers and sisters, thanking him for forgiving our sins in Christ and opening the veil through Jesus’ death and Resurrection? Should it me a friendly time of encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ who are there to celebrate with us? Should our music be more happy than sad, music fit to express the extremity of joy that we experience through Christ, using the loud, rhythmic instruments of Psalm 150?

You may guess from my language that I’m tilted more in the second direction than the first. It is a balance. And I can still be moved by worship of the first type. That kind of worship is authentic worship. But I think the second kind of worship is more in keeping with the fullness of divine grace and with the New Testament emphasis on worship as a celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection: worship on the first day of the week, rather than the last.

There is, I think, a place in worship to mourn for our sins and to seek God’s forgiveness. Jesus said that even if our whole body is clean we still need to wash our feet. And there is a place in worship to recognize God’s awesomeness and to sense something of the fear that Isaiah and Peter experienced in the presence of their judge. Indeed, if we don’t have some sense of that, our sense of joy and celebration won’t be as great. Christian joy is extreme because Jesus has saved us from the wages of sin, which is eternal death. If you don’t think of yourself as a sinner, you won’t be as thankful, you won’t be as full of celebration and joy. So perhaps we who emphasize joy and celebration need to be careful to remind ourselves more often of the pit that God has brought us out of. But I still think the dominant note should be joy. And, as the writer to the Hebrews says, the worship meeting should be a friendly place, where we encourage one another.

That transition from abject fear to joyful celebration. That is grace. Like Jacob, Moses, the Israelites, Isaiah, and Peter, we experience that grace in worship.

And there is still another way in which we should experience grace in worship. Remember how Jesus, before he died, washed the feet of his disciples (John 13)? This amazed them. Here was their Master and Lord, washing their feet, taking the lowliest role at their supper. And so, Jesus said to them, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

The disciples had a long history of arguing about who would be the greatest in Jesus’ Kingdom. In Matt. 20, Jesus told them they should not be like the Gentile rulers, who “lord it over” their subjects. Rather, the greatest should be the servant, the minister. Here too, Jesus is the example: “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (verse 28). Remember too what Paul says in Philippians 2, that Jesus took on himself the form, the very nature, of a servant, “he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!” (verse 8).

Indeed (and this fact boggles the mind), even after Jesus returns in glory, when we partake of the great wedding feast that the Lord’s Supper foreshadows, he will be there as a servant: “he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at table, and will come and wait on them” (Luke 12:37).

That too is grace. In our worship, the Lord serves his people. And he calls us, especially the leaders—the pastors, the elders, the worship leaders—also to be servants.

I’ve been in too many churches where there are battles over worship, often between the old and the young, between traditionalists and contemporary-types, between those who like drums and those who don’t, between those who like sophistication and complication and others who like simplicity. Usually in these battles, one group simply lays down the law to the other, assuming that their position is the mature, spiritually minded one, and the others are selfish, immature, and so on. And as I try to look objectively on the problem, I see immaturity and selfishness on both sides.

In my next message I will talk a bit about why we need both simplicity and complexity, tradition and contemporaneity. For now, let me just exhort you to serve one another. So many of our worship battles are far worse because of a shortage of servant hearts. Young people (I assume that young people are usually the advocates of contemporaneity), can’t you see that your fathers and mothers in the Lord need to have their old songs? Using only the new ones is hard for them—just as hard as it would be for you to use only the old ones. Older people, can’t you see that the young people speak a different musical language from you, that they can’t express the extremes of their praise for God using the sedate tunes of an earlier generation. Older people, can you love your children in Christ, enough to understand this need and meet it? Can’t you allow them to worship in their own language? Young people, can’t you honor your fathers and mothers in the Lord and understand their loss at having all their songs taken away from them? Bend to one another, serve one another, love one another, as Christ for his sake loved you. Maybe the young people don’t deserve such consideration from the old, or vice versa. But none of us deserves anything. That’s what grace is about. The Lord became our servant, unto death. That is grace. Can’t we show more grace to one another? He chose us when we were foolish, sinners, without hope. Can we not bear with the foolish in our own fellowships? That is worshipping in grace.


5. Soli Deo Gloria

We come now to the final point, the ultimate point: worship should bring glory to God alone. This is what worship is all about. Indeed, it is what all of life is all about: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). In one sense, you see, all of life is worship:

NIV Romans 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will.

In all of life, we live sola Scriptura, by God’s Word alone as our final standard; we live by faith, as Abraham did, believing God’s promise despite evidence to the contrary; we live by Jesus, for without him we can do nothing; we live by grace, without which we would die eternally. And in all of life, including our public worship services, we live to the glory of God alone.

So clearly our worship must be God-centered. That should be obvious. It is God whom we worship. We worship to please him, not ourselves. So in worship, we should be full of words and thoughts and emotions honoring his greatness. Think of how the apostle Paul breaks away from his closely-reasoned argument about God’s dealings with the Jews, to worship:

NIV Romans 11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

We might think that after Rom. 1-11 he might conclude by saying that he had answered all the theological questions, and now he could move on to the practical matters of chapters 12-16. But, to the contrary, his long, logical description of God’s saving work fills him with a sense of his own ignorance. It humbles him with a vision of God’s greatness. So he pauses to worship. Our hearts, minds, and mouths should be full of such words in our worship. Even though God has opened the way for us to enter boldly into his presence, that privilege should overwhelm us. God’s greatness should mix our joy with reverence and awe.

People sometimes ask how we can achieve a balance between reverence and joy. In our experience, there is often a tension between the two. But we should be able to understand now that the solemnity of meeting with our creator and redeemer only makes our joy more intense, and vice versa: the joy is so intense that we are humbled by the greatness of the one who makes us joyful. Sometimes joy can be so surprising (recall the title of C. S. Lewis’s book Surprised by Joy), so thorough, so overwhelming that it transforms and humbles us. Consider a friend or relative whom you barely know, but who out of the blue gives you the most wonderful gift you had ever received. If you have any sensitivity, this kind of gift will humble you and give you a certain awe for this person. Magnified to the nth degree, this is the kind of awesome joy that permeates the true worship of God. You see how grace brings us into God’s presence with joy, and fills us with reverent awe at the same time.

So biblical worship is filled with grace: praising God for deliverance and redemption. After they crossed the Red Sea on dry land, Israel sang to God,

“I will sing to the Lord,

for he is highly exalted.

The horse and the rider

He has hurled into the sea.

The Lord is my strength and song

He has become my salvation.

He is my God, an I will praise him,

My father’s God, and I will exalt him.“ (Ex. 15:1-2)

The song speaks of the greatness of God himself: he is “exalted,” and also of God’s grace in saving Israel and destroying the Egyptian army. Grace and glory. Thanks and praise. God as highly exalted, and God as my God, my father’s God. God as transcendent, above us, and immanent, as our God.

Don’t ever pit God’s transcendence against his immanence. Worship is nothing if it is not worship of a transcendent God, the God of heaven. And it is nothing if it is not worship of God immanent; God with us, Immanuel, Jesus Christ. Worship is nothing if it doesn’t reveal the glory of God to us; and it is nothing if it does not reveal his grace.

At the end of history, the glory of God and of his Son Jesus will be plain for everyone to see. But even then, we will be praising him for his grace as well as his glory:

Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,

To receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength

And honor and glory and praise! (Rev. 5:11)

So worship is God-centered, but its God-centeredness focuses on his grace to us. So in a way, we get into the picture too. We, the worshippers. We, the recipients of grace. In focusing on God, we also think about ourselves. For we see ourselves as sinners, saved by God’s grace. If we don’t think a bit about ourselves, we won’t understand the greatness of God’s grace. So Calvin said on the first page of his Institutes that he cannot know himself without knowing God, or know God without knowing himself. And he was not sure which came first.

So there is a human side to worship. Some may think that a focus on the humanness of worship detracts from its God-centeredness. Some may think that the very idea of talking about the human side of worship is inappropriate. People have sometimes taught that in worship we should be so focused on God, so passionately obsessed with him, that we never even think of ourselves or of our fellow worshippers. Worship, they say, should be “vertical,” and not at all “horizontal.”

That idea sounds pious, but it’s not biblical. There is some truth in it. Certainly our worship should be God-centered. So far as the object of worship is concerned, the one we worship, that is entirely vertical and nor horizontal at all. We worship God and God alone, not ourselves, not our fellow worshippers. But that fact doesn’t imply that there is no horizontal dimension at all to worship. It certainly doesn’t imply that all our thoughts should be of God and none at all of people.

According to Scripture, you can’t honor God without honoring his image. His image is us, people. Scripture is about God, but it is equally about people. The first commandment of the Ten tells us to honor God alone, but the fifth teaches us to honor our fathers and mothers. The first Great Commandment, according to Jesus (Matt. 22:37-40), tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind; the second tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Paul says that the second is enough to sum up the whole law, Gal. 5:14.) The New Commandment Jesus gave his disciples is the “Love one another, as I have loved you.” And that love is what marks Christians off from the world: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” John 13:34-35. Textbooks on the doctrine of the church will tell you that the marks of the true church are the Word, the Sacraments, and church Discipline. True enough. But the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention those marks. The mark it mentions is love. Paul says in 1 Cor. 13, in the middle of a passage dealing with worship, that everything we do, especially in worship, is nothing if we don’t do it with love. True faith, says Paul, works in love (Gal. 5:6).

So the Bible says that in worship we should think of one another. Not like the Jews of Isaiah’s day, who spent their solemn fast days plotting how to take advantage of widows and orphans. On the fast day, they should have been sharing their food with the hungry, providing wanderers with shelter, clothing the naked (Isa. 58). Similarly, the apostle Paul tells us that when we take the Lord’s Supper we should see that there is enough for everybody (1 Cor. 11:17-22).  And James says that in worship we need to be concerned that the rich not get better seats than the poor (James 2:1-7).

Jesus said that if we are bringing a gift to God’s altar and there remember that a brother has something against us, we should leave the gift there, be reconciled with our brother, and then offer the gift (Matt. 5:23-24). Reconciliation takes priority over worship. So when we worship we should be thinking about our relationships, about other people.

I’ve been to churches where they take no notice of strangers like me, where they go through elaborate rituals, but make no effort to explain to this stranger what they are doing, or how I can find out what to do. Perhaps people in these churches consider themselves God-centered. I think they need to have a better understanding of biblical worship, and a better idea of what it means to be God-centered.

So we should think of one another in worship. Is there any place in worship for thinking about ourselves? If you read the Psalms, you know the answer. The Psalmists speak of themselves over and over again. They bring their needs, their laments, their disappointments, their ambitions, their anxieties, their joys into their Psalms. They lay themselves completely open before God.

People sometimes criticize contemporary worship songs for being focused on the self, on “I” and “me.” They consider such songs narcissistic, actually the worship of self rather than of God. But in Psm. 18, which contains 50 verses, there are at least 73 forms of the first person singular pronoun. It begins,

I love you, O LORD, my strength.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;

My God is the rock, in whom I take refuge.

He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

I call on the LORD, who is worthy of praise,

And I am saved from my enemies.

Is this a man-centered Psalm? Does it bring glory to man rather than to God? Is it unworthy of worship? Certainly no all these questions. You see, the issue is not how many times we use the word I or the word me; the question is how we use these words. When we come to worship confessing God as our God, my God, we are honoring God as he wants to be honored. He wants to be our God. Not only did he create us in his image, but he loved us in Christ from before the foundation of the world. And he became God with us, Immanuel, to save us from our sins through Christ. He wants us to praise him, not only for his attributes, but for what he’s done for us. And he wants us to trust him, to have faith in him, enough that we will bring all our other needs before him and expect him to meet each one. Not only our objective needs, but also our subjective feelings, our emotional needs. We worship him by confessing that he and he alone can meet those needs. To confess that is not narcissistic. It’s not worshiping ourselves. It is worship of the one, true God, biblical worship in the fullest sense.

And there is another aspect of worship that focuses on the worshipper. For in worship, God wants to teach us, to edify us. Note that a number of Psalms are not addressed to God, but to the worshippers. The very first Psalm, Psalm 1, is a teaching Psalm. It’s not praise or adoration, except indirectly. It teaches us the difference between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. Psalm 2 teaches us about the futility of rebellion against God. Even the most powerful human beings, the kings, had better bow before the Lord in worship, lest his wrath flare up against them.

New Testament worship, also, has a teaching purpose. When the Christians sang psalms and hymns, they “taught and admonished” one another (Col. 3:16). They also brought words of instruction, revelations of God, tongues, and prophecies (1 Cor. 14:26). I will not discuss whether all these gifts are present in the church today. But I do want to emphasize Paul’s concern in this passage for intelligible communication in worship. One problem in the Corinthian church is that many of the people had the gift of tongues, that is the ability to speak languages that they had not learned naturally. Some people also had the gift of interpretation, the gift of explaining what was said in these supernatural tongues. But those Corinthians who had the gift of tongues often liked to use that gift in worship whether or not there was anybody around to interpret. The result was that much of their worship was unintelligible. Paul’s whole emphasis in 1 Cor. 14, is that this is wrong. Worship should be intelligible, because it should be edifying (verse 26), or as some translations say, for the strengthening of the church.

Sometimes this edification is called “encouragement:” Heb 10:25, again, says,

NIV Hebrews 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another– and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

When we meet for worship, we should encourage one another, build one another up. That is not inappropriate to worship. It is not man-centered in a bad sense. It brings glory to God. It’s what God wants.

The tongues speakers in Corinth might have thought that edification doesn’t matter. After all, they may have said, worship is directed to God, not people. We can talk to God in tongues without interpretation, and he will understand. But Paul says no. Worship is not only for God; it is also for the worshippers. Every bit of worship should be understandable.

Even a visiting unbeliever should understand what is going on. In verses 22-25, Paul reflects on the possibility that an unbeliever might visit a worship service. If he hears people speaking in uninterpreted tongues, he will think the Christians are crazy. But if he hears intelligible prophecy, he will be confronted with his sins and he will exclaim that “God is really among you.”

Especially because of our Reformation emphasis, let me point out that this principle was very important to the Reformers. They insisted that worship should be, not in Latin, but in the vernacular languages, and that the Bible should be translated in all those languages so that everybody could understand it. There was preaching in the medieval church, but preaching became far more central in the worship of the Protestants. The Roman Catholics may have complained that this emphasis was man-centered. But the Reformers knew that when God meets with people he wants to bless them, to teach them, to strengthen them.

So when we plan worship, we need to think of people. We need to ask, what will they understand? What must be explained? We need to speak language they understand, or, if we use strange language, to explain it. We need to take account of all the different levels of knowledge that exist among our worshippers: There are people of different ages: babies, children, teens, young adults, middle-aged, seniors. There may be people of different levels of education, different socio-economic levels, different types of neighborhoods, different occupations, different cultures and races, different attitudes, different besetting sins. And there are people at different levels of spiritual growth: new Christians, people who have become spiritually dry and indifferent, people who are growing rapidly, mature Christians, elders and deacons. And there may well be, in your congregation as at Corinth, some unbelievers present. They should hear the Gospel and hear it clearly.

Worship is basically a meeting of God with his own people, a meeting of believers. It is not primarily evangelism. But evangelism is part of it. Teaching a congregation is, to a great extent, teaching them the Gospel over and over, teaching them to repent and lay their sins on Christ. And that Gospel should be clear enough that when an unbeliever shows up, he won’t miss it.

To communicate with contemporary people, you need to use contemporary language. I’m not saying you should never use an old hymn, or that you shouldn’t ever do things to express unity with the saints of the past. But when you do that, you need to explain to your contemporary congregation what you are asking them to do. Since we don’t want to spend too much time explaining things, I should think that most of the time we should use contemporary language.

Music is part of all this. Like language, music also communicates. It enhances the power of language, when we set hymns to music. It also communicates on its own. Certainly at the very least it communicates moods and emotions. And, like language, some kinds of music are unintelligible to some people. In planning worship, we should treat music like language, seeking music that communicates to everyone in our congregation.

Marva Dawn, in her Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, argues that if worship is to edify, it should challenge the minds of worshipers. We should not, in her view, restrict ourselves to simple language, ideas, and tunes, but we should present ideas and songs that help them to grow in their understanding. I agree. Worship should be educational. It should not leave people where they were, but should take them from where they are to a deeper understanding. But that’s the point: in education, you must begin where people are. You must begin with what they do understand, and move from there to something they need to learn. That means that there should be, in every service, some words and some music that are relatively simple, other elements that are more challenging.

We should remember too that not everybody in a congregation starts at the same place, or learns at the same rate. We sometimes think of a healthy congregation as a church where everybody has reached a very advanced level of spiritual sophistication. But a church like that would be a church where there are no new believers. It would be a church that has neglected its basic task, the Great Commission. A healthy church is a church with believers at all levels, from spiritual babies to spiritual fathers and mothers. And in worship there should be something for all of them. No congregation should ever reach a point of maturity—or think it has reached a point of maturity—where they no longer need to hear the simple Gospel in word or song.

Let’s do a thought-experiment. Let’s imagine that instead of me speaking to you, God himself were to speak to you in person, as he did to Israel from Mount Sinai. What would you say to him? Many great poets have expressed wonderful eloquence in praising God. I think of William Cowper’s hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” which reads in part,

Deep in unfathomable mines of never-ending skill,

He treasures up his bright designs, and works his sovereign will.

A great poem, a great hymn. I’ve often been moved by it. But if you were face-to-face with God, I don’t think you’d remember it. What would you say? Nothing at first; you’d be too overwhelmed. But perhaps eventually you’d see the face of Jesus in his presence, and you’d be moved to say something in praise. Then what? I think what would first occur to us would be simple words, children’s words, since we are all children before him, even the smartest of us. And we’d say, maybe, “praise to you, Jesus.” “You are worthy.” “Thank you for dying for us.” “O Lord, you are very great.” Now, remember that in an important sense, God is always with us in worship. And we need to remember more often what it is like to stand in the presence of the living God. So consider that even for the most sophisticated among us, there is a place in worship for simple songs.

Of course in a way the debate has now passed on to another stage. Contemporary worship music isn’t so simple any more. It too is maturing, and it is producing works of great rhythmic, melodic, and verbal complexity. I applaud that development. But I hope the contemporary worship movement will never turn away entirely from simple songs.

A word about entertainment. When we focus on the horizontal aspect of worship in this way, some people worry that we are equating worship with entertainment. There is a real danger of confusing the two. Church auditoriums are very much like theaters: we sit around watching somebody do something up on a stage. But of course worship is very different from entertainment. We seek to honor God, not to please ourselves, as with entertainment. To be sure, we seek blessings for ourselves as well, but those blessings are the blessings of edification, teaching, spiritual strengthening, not entertainment. Bonhoeffer brought out the difference when he said that if you insist on a theatrical metaphor, the audience is actually God, not ourselves. We are the performers, not the audience, and the minister is the prompter, not the performer.

On the other hand, there is overlap between worship and entertainment. There is music both in worship and entertainment, and in both of these the music is to be done “skillfully” (1 Chron. 15:22, 2 Chron. 34:12, Psm. 33:3). Both worship and entertainment require intelligible communication. It would not be right for us to try to eliminate everything in worship that could possibly be construed as entertaining. The difference between the two a difference of overall purpose, not necessarily of musical or verbal style.

Worship is not entertainment, but it is edification and encouragement. That brings glory to God. For when we edify one another, what are we trying to do, after all? We’re trying to show one another the greatness of God, the riches of his grace, the love of Christ, the life of faith, the truth of the promises of Scripture. Edifying one another is helping one another to draw near to God, as he’s revealed in the Gospel. So there is no contradiction between God-centered worship and edifying worship. Worship that is not God-centered will not be edifying, and worship that is not edifying will not be God-centered.

I’ll close with this: One area where Christians need edification is when personal tragedy strikes, and they ask how a just and good God could bring them so much trouble. I find that when I ask questions like that, the best help I can find is in Rev, 15:3-4. I learned this passage through a contemporary Scripture song. It is thoroughly God-centered; but it speaks to the most profound human need. It show how after all our history is complete, we will look back and confess with joy that all God’s works have been righteous and good. These verses edify, because they give all glory to God.

NIV Revelation 15:3 and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. 4 Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

May God put that song in our hearts, to praise him in all the worst and the best of circumstances, to begin here and now that song that will echo through the vastness of eternity.



Sign up to receive new posts via e-mail