False and superficial religion fills this world. But we who love Christ dare not accommodate our worship to the styles and preferences of an unbelieving world. Instead, we must make it our business to look to Scripture alone to direct our church practices.
Today we’re going to look at three such principles from the pages of God’s Word that should guide our worship.
Edify the Flock
The Bible tells us that the purpose of spiritual gifts is for the edification of the whole church (Ephesians 4:12; cf. 1 Corinthians 14:12). Therefore all ministry in the context of the church should somehow build up the flock.
Above all, ministry should be aimed at stimulating truth-centered worship. This is implied by the expression “Worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). As we have noted in previous posts, worship should engage the intellect as well as the emotions. By all means, worship should be passionate, heartfelt, and moving. But the point is not to stir the emotions while turning off the mind. That type of “worship” edifies no one. Therefore true worship must merge heart and mind in a response of pure adoration, based on the truth revealed in the Word.
Music may sometimes move us by the sheer beauty of its sound, but such sentiment is not worship. Music alone, uninformed by truth, is not legitimate worship.
Genuine worship is passionate because it arises out of our love for God. But to be true worship it must also arise out of a correct understanding of His law, His righteousness, His mercy, and His being. Real worship acknowledges God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. We know from Scripture, for example, that He is the only perfectly holy source from which flows all goodness, mercy, truth, wisdom, power, and salvation. Worship means ascribing glory to Him because of those truths. It means adoring Him for who He is, for what He has done, and for what He has promised. It must therefore be a response to the truth that He has revealed about Himself. Such worship cannot rise out of a vacuum. It is prompted and vitalized by the objective truth of the Word.
Rote ceremonies and entertainment that are detached from that truth can’t possibly edify the flock. At best they can arouse a purely emotional response, but that isn’t true worship, and it builds no one up in the truth.
Honor the Lord
Hebrews 12:28 says, “Let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe.” That verse speaks of the attitude in which we should worship. The Greek word for “service” is latreuō, which literally means “worship.” The point is that worship ought to be done reverently, in a way that honors God. In fact, the Authorized Version translates it this way: “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (emphasis added)—and the next verse adds, “For our God is a consuming fire” (v. 29). ō
There is certainly no place in corporate worship for the frivolous atmosphere that prevails in churches that desperately seek to be “relevant” to a postmodern comedy-club culture. To exchange the worship service for a circus is about as far from the spirit of biblical worship “in reverence and awe” as is possible.
“Reverence and awe” refers to a solemn sense of honor as we perceive the majesty of God. It demands both a sense of God’s holiness and a sense for our own sinfulness. Everything in the corporate worship of the church should aim at fostering such an atmosphere.
Why would a church replace preaching and worship with burlesque in the Lord’s Day services? Many who have done it say they are aiming to reach non-Christians. They want to create a user-friendly environment that will be more appealing to unbelievers. Their stated goal is relevance rather than reverence. And their services are designed to appeal to the tastes and preferences of unbelievers, not to honor the God they have gathered to worship.
Many of these churches give little or no emphasis to the New Testament ordinances. The Lord’s Supper, if observed at all, is relegated to a smaller, midweek service. Baptism is virtually deemed optional, and baptisms are normally performed somewhere other than in the Sunday services.
What’s wrong with that? Is there a problem with using the Lord’s Day services as evangelistic meetings? Is there a biblical reason Sunday should be the day believers gather for worship?
Both biblically and historically there are a number of reasons for setting aside the first day of the week for worship and fellowship among believers. A simple application of the regulative principle yields ample argumentation for this point.
We learn from Scripture, for example, that the first day of the week was the day the apostolic church came together to celebrate the Lord’s Table: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them” (Acts 20:7). Paul instructed the Corinthians to do their giving systematically, on the first day of the week, clearly implying that this was the day they came together for worship (1 Corinthians 16:2). History reveals that the early church referred to the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day, an expression found in Revelation 1:10.
Furthermore, Scripture suggests that the regular meetings of the early church were not for evangelistic purposes, but primarily for mutual encouragement and worship among the community of believers. The writer of Hebrews pleads, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24–25, emphasis added).
Certainly there were times when unbelievers might come into an assembly of believers (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23). First-century church meetings were essentially public meetings. But the service itself was designed for worship and fellowship among believers. Evangelism took place in the context of everyday life, as believers went forth with the gospel. They gathered for worship and fellowship but scattered for evangelism. When a church gathers to be evangelistic, believers lose opportunities be edified and worship.
More to the point, there is no warrant in Scripture for adapting the church’s weekly gatherings to the preferences of unbelievers. Indeed, the practice seems to be contrary to the spirit of everything Scripture says about the assembly of believers.
The church does not gather on the Lord’s Day to entertain the lost, amuse the brethren, or otherwise cater to the “felt needs” of those in attendance. This is when we should bow before our God as a congregation and honor Him with our worship.
Put No Confidence in the Flesh
In Philippians 3:3 the apostle Paul characterizes Christian worship this way: “We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (emphasis added).
Paul goes on to testify how he came to see that his own pre-Christian, pharisaical legalism was worthless. He describes how he was once obsessed with external, fleshly issues, such as circumcision, lineage, and legal obedience—rather than the more important issue of the state of his heart. Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road changed all that. His eyes were opened to the glorious truth of justification by faith. He realized that the only way he could stand before God and be accepted was by being clothed with the righteousness of Christ (v. 9). He learned that mere external compliance with religious rites—circumcision and ceremony—is of no spiritual value whatsoever. In fact, Paul labeled those things as rubbish, or more literally, as “dung” (v. 8).
To this day, however, when the average person speaks of worship, it is usually the external trappings of public religion that are in view. I once read the testimony of a man who left evangelical Christianity and joined Roman Catholicism. One of the primary reasons he gave for abandoning evangelicalism was that he found Roman Catholic liturgy “more worshipful.” As he went on to explain, it became apparent that what he actually meant was that Rome offered more of the accoutrements of formal ritual—candle burning, statues, kneeling, reciting, crossing oneself, and so on. He equated those acts with worship.
But such things have nothing to do with genuine worship in spirit and truth. In fact, as human inventions—not biblical prescriptions—they are precisely the sort of fleshly devices Paul labeled “dung.”
Experience and history show that the human tendency to add fleshly apparatus to the worship God prescribes is incredibly strong. Israel did this in the Old Testament, culminating in the religion of the Pharisees. Pagan religions consist of nothing but fleshly ritual. The fact that such ceremonies are often beautiful and moving does not make them true worship. Scripture is clear that God condemns all human additions to what He has explicitly commanded: “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:9).
We who love the Word of God and believe in the principle of sola Scriptura must diligently guard against such a tendency.
To that end, we will close out this series on worship in the days ahead with a look at how Scripture tells us to worship God in our day-to-day life.
(Adapted from Worship: The Ultimate Priority)