Worship! What Is It Really?
Definition of Worship
What is worship? It is essentially doxology—a giving of glory, praise, honour, and homage to God. Worship is the tribute which we pay to God, whereby we acknowledge his sovereignty over us and our dependence on him. Worship includes all the inward reverence and respect and all the outward obedience and service to God that God requires of us in his Word.
Usually we use the word worship for all our direct communion with God: invocation, adoration, meditation, faith, praise, prayer and the receiving of instruction from his word, both in public and in private.
The Lord Jesus Christ said that worship must be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). That is to say, on the one hand, worship must be inward, a matter of ‘heart-work’, and, on the other, worship must be a response to the revealed reality of God’s will and work, applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit. Worship must therefore be simple and scriptural. Simplicity is the safeguard of inwardness, and Scripture is the fountain-head of truth.
Simplicity in Worship
The simplicity of worship is an essential part of the beauty of Christian worship. This comes out in two sermons by the Puritan John Owen on Ephesians 2:18, entitled ‘The Nature and beauty of gospel worship’. He begins by making the point that the true ‘decency’, ‘order’, and ‘beauty’ of Christian worship lies in its Trinitarian and evangelical character, as an exercise of faith on the part of the worshippers:
“…The worship of God ought to be orderly, comely, beautiful and glorious….” “…In the spiritual worship of the gospel, the whole blessed Trinity, and each person therein distinctly, do in the economy and dispensation, wherein they act severally and peculiarly in the work of our redemption, afford distinct communion with themselves unto the souls of the worshippers.”
Owen shows how this is set forth in Ephesians 2:18, which speaks of access to the Father through the Son by the Spirit:
“This is the general order of gospel worship, the great rubric of our service. Here in general lies its decency… If either we do not come to it by Jesus Christ, or perform it not in the strength of the Holy Spirit, or in it do not go unto God as a Father, we transgress all the rules of this worship. This is the great canon, which if it be neglected, there is no decency in whatever else is done in this way. And this in general is the glory of it…. Acting faith on Christ for admission, and on the Holy Ghost for his assistance, so going on in his strength; and on God, even the Father, for acceptance, is the work of the soul in this worship.”
The Place of Worship
With respect to the idea that ornate buildings and rituals have, or can have, anything to do with the ‘beauty’ that God seeks and finds in the worship of his faithful people, Owen reminds us that Christians are themselves the temple and dwelling place of God, and that true worship, though done on earth in the body, is actually ‘performed in heaven’, inasmuch as “those who have an access into the immediate presence of God, and to the throne of grace, enter into heaven itself” (cf. Hebrews 5:20; 9:24; 10:19, 21; Revelation 4).
Who Can Worship
When the Lord Jesus Christ says that worship must be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), we are to understand that worship is an act of the understanding, applying itself to the knowledge of the attributes of God. It is also an act of the will, whereby the soul adores and reverences his attributes, embraces his goodness, enters itself into an intimate communion with him, and sets all his affections upon him.
Only the regenerate can worship God acceptably, for only they have hearts that truly go out to him in humble adoration. Therefore we must find healing in Christ’s wings, before God can find spirituality in our worship. All worship that proceeds from a dead nature, is but a dead worship.
Spiritual worship is performed only by the Spirit’s active help, since it requires sincerity and singleness of heart. It involves acts of faith, love, humbling, and self-trust, and must be an expression of the heart’s desire for God. A spiritual worshipper actually aspires in every duty to know God. To desire worship as an end, is carnal; to desire it as a means for communion with God in it, is spiritual, and the fruit of a spiritual life.
That worship is a spiritual worship, and praise, joy, and delight are prophesied of as ingredients in attending the means of grace, is taught in Isaiah 12:3-5. In worship we must seek to reflect back to God by our response the knowledge that we have received of Him through His revelation.
The Manner of Worship
God is a Spirit infinitely happy, therefore we must approach Him with cheerfulness; He is a Spirit of infinite majesty, therefore we must come before Him with reverence; He is a Spirit infinitely high, therefore we must offer up our sacrifices with deepest humility; He is a Spirit infinitely holy, therefore we must address Him with purity; He is a Spirit infinitely glorious, we therefore must acknowledge His glory. He is a Spirit infinitely provoked by us, therefore we must offer up our worship in the name of the atoning mediator and intercessor.
“That all true believers whose minds are spiritually renewed have a singular delight in all the institutions and ordinances of divine worship is fully evident,” writes Owen. He quotes Psalm 42:1-4, 63:1-5, 84:1-4 to prove his point. Why do they delight in it? Because in worship the saints do not merely seek God; they also find him. Worship is not only an expression of gratitude, but also a means of grace, whereby the hungry are fed, so that the empty are sent away rich. For there is in worship an approach of God to man.” “God’s presence in his ordinances” is a reality; God is essentially present in the world, graciously present in his church. “God delight to approach to men, and converse with them in the worship instituted in the gospel. And men honour God most when they come to worship hungry and expectant, conscious of need and looking to God to meet them and supply it.
The ordinances of Christian worship, declares Owen, are “means of the communication of a sense of divine love, and supplies of divine grace unto the soul of them that do believe”. They are “ways of our approaching unto God”, and “we are always to come unto God, as unto an eternal spring of goodness, grace, mercy, of all that our souls do stand in need of.” “To make a pretense of coming unto God, and not with expectation of receiving good and great things from him, is to despise God.” An aimless, careless, casual, routine habit of church-going is neither rational nor reverent. Owen asks these piercing questions: “What do men come to hear the Word of God for? What do they pray for? What do they expect to receive from him? Do they come unto God as the eternal fountain of living waters? As the God of all grace, peace and consolation? Or do they come unto his worship without any design as unto a dry and empty show? … Or do they think they bring something unto God, but receive nothing from him? … To receive anything from him they expect not, nor do they ever examine themselves whether they have done so or so? … It is not for persons who walk in such ways, ever to attain a due delight in the ordinances of divine worship.”
Owen’s application of this is uncomfortably searching: “Many of the better sort of professors are too negligent in this matter. They do not long and pant in the inward man after renewed pledges of the love of God; they do not consider how much they have need of them…; they do not prepare their minds for their reception of them, nor come with the expectation of the communication unto them; they do not rightly fix their faith on this truth, namely that these holy administrations and duties are appointed of God in the first place, as the way and means of conveying his love and a sense of it unto our souls. From hence springs all that luke-warmness, coldness, and indifference unto the duties of holy worship, that are growing among us.”
The Reformed list of the parts and constituent activities of worship normally include the following: praise (the singing of psalms), prayer (confession, adoration, intercession), preaching, the sacraments, and also the catechizing and the exercise of discipline. In all these activities God comes to meet his people met together in the name of His Son, but most of all in preaching. Preaching is the most solemn and exalted action, and therefore the supreme test, of a man’s ministry. Preaching the gospel solemnly and publicly to the congregation is interpreting the written the Word of God, and applying the same by exhortation and reproof to the congregation. For preaching in the church is supremely the ministration of the Spirit. It is the supreme means of grace. It is not the letter of the Word that ordinarily converts, but the spiritual meaning of it, as revealed and expounded.
For congregations, therefore, the hearing of sermons is the most momentous event of their lives. And the worshippers are exhorted to listen to the Word preached with awe, attention, and expectancy.
Not, however, that the hearing of sermons is an end in itself, it is not so that listening to sermons is all that matters. Preaching must lead to praying to and blessing God.