Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Nature of Worship

Before we can start thinking about worship practically, we must be able to discuss the nature of worship theologically. On the most basic level, the object of Christian worship is God Himself and those who participate in worship are humans. Therefore, in our understanding of the nature of worship, we should have both a divine and a human component. There are four aspects of the nature of worship that are fundamental to our understanding of worship: God’s initiative/human response, God’s enabling/human dependence, God’s governance/human obedience, and God’s glory/human joy.

First, Christian worship is possible only by God’s initiative. This truth is made evident from the very beginning at creation. Man does not initiate a relationship with God. Rather, God, as the only eternal Being, creates man in order that he might know God and enjoy Him in all of life. God’s initiative in our worship is only made clearer as we progress on through redemptive history. In Israel’s history, we see how God initiates a covenant with Abraham, an idol-worshiper, in order that he might worship and follow the true God instead. We see how God initiates and carries out Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, so that they might worship Him in the desert. We could go on to discuss the giving of the Law, invasion of Canaan, God’s repeated deliverances, the temple, the prophets, and many other ways in which God initiates Israel’s worship. All of these various acts of initiative, however, ultimately point to the greatest act of divine initiative, namely God sending His Son as a payment for our sins, so that we might be reconciled to Him and worship Him forever. Worship is possible only because of Jesus Christ and His life of obedience, death and resurrection. The Gospel must be the foundation of true worship. Any attempt to worship God that is not built on God’s initiative is false worship.

This has many implications for the nature of worship, but perhaps most significantly, this means that only Christians have the privilege of worshiping God. If worship is only possible by God’s initiative, then only those who have responded in faith to God’s initiative in Christ can offer true worship. No worship can be offered apart from the Gospel. Therefore, worship should never be viewed as an activity that we have invented or orchestrated by our own wisdom or goodness. Rather, worship is always our grateful response in faith to God’s work in our lives to bring us to Himself. Worship is the human response to God’s initiative in saving us.

Second, Christian worship is enabled by God. This is a theme repeated throughout Scripture. Peterson writes, “New-covenant worship is essentially the engagement with God that he has made possible through the revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and the life he has made available through the Holy Spirit” [1]. On the cross, Christ opened the way so that we might worship God. Yet, because of our sin, we need God’s enablement in our lives to worship Him. This enabling is described in Scripture as the Holy Spirit’s work to cause us to be born again (John 3:5), to exchange our hearts of stone for hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), and to open our blind eyes to the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). But this enabling happens not only at conversion, but also throughout the Christian life. Even after we have been regenerated, we continue to need the Spirit’s work in conforming us to Christ-likeness, in reminding us of the truths of the gospel, in causing us to grow in our knowledge of God, and in fostering love and unity among Christians. God continues to work in our lives in order that we might be enabled to offer up acceptable worship to Him.

This means that as Christians, when we approach God in worship, we come with an attitude of humble dependence on Him. Whether worshiping corporately or in the day-to-day events of life, we must remember that worship is not our supplying God with what he lacks, or something we muster up from our own resources. Rather, as we seek to magnify God in worship, we are dependent on the Holy Spirit’s merciful work in revealing to us the glory of Christ in the Word. Because the Holy Spirit works particularly through the Word, the way we express our dependence on God in worship is by centering all of our worship on Scripture and incorporating constant prayer. The nature of Christian worship requires human dependence on God’s enablement of our worship.

Third, Christian worship is governed by God. More specifically, God has established in His Word how we are to worship Him corporately. God cares about how we worship, because our worship reflects who He is. Duncan writes, “Corporate worship informs our understanding of God… Form impacts content. The means of worship influences the worshipers’ apprehension of God” [2]. How Christians worship God when they gather speaks volumes, both to us and to the world, about who God is. Therefore, God is careful to govern our corporate worship, so that it might more accurately reflect His glory. This is why we see God jealously punishing those who defy His Word and attempt to form their worship after human traditions. Worship that is not governed by God is in vain (Is. 29:13).

For Christians, this means that worship, including corporate worship, requires wholehearted obedience to God’s Word. Though sincerity, emotions, and affections are all good and important in worship, apart from obedience to the Word of God, they will not produce worship that is pleasing to God. Because of sin’s deceitfulness and our inclination towards idolatry, it is especially important that we carefully evaluate our worship according to God’s Word. As with all obedience, our submission to God in worship brings glory to Him. “The way in which we follow his commands for worship is a reflection of our knowledge of God and how seriously we take him” [3]. The success of our corporate worship should be guided and evaluated by our faithfulness to God’s Word. The nature of worship is such that it is governed by God and requires human obedience to God’s governance.

Finally, worship exists for God’s glory. The ultimate reason for why God has saved us from His wrath and set us apart for worship is because of His passion for His glory (Ex. 32:11-14, Is. 43:6-7). Human history exists to display the glory of God’s grace in the Gospel, through the lives of the people He has called to Himself through His Son. It is ultimately not because of any goodness or desirability in us that we are worshipers of God, but because God seeks to display His glory. Therefore, Christian worship exists for the glory of God, and since Christian worship encompasses all of life (Rom. 12:1), all of life is for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). True worship will always seek to highlight the glory of God, and this glory is particularly expressed in the Gospel. The three previous points about God’s initiative, enablement and governance are particularly important for our theology of worship because they ground our worship in the Gospel, which brings all glory to God.

Since worship is to be a display of God’s glory, then worship must be the most satisfying and fulfilling activity in which our souls may participate. Worship that is joyless or ritualistic is not true worship. Nor is worship that finds its satisfaction in styles, or music, or creativity, or anything other than the glory of God, true worship. We also must be careful that we do not worship for any other purpose (i.e.: unity in church, better health, success at work, wisdom in life, etc…) other than enjoying God. We engage with God for God’s sake, in order that we might enjoy Him. Although God requires our joy in Him in our worship, this isn’t anything that we can spontaneously generate within ourselves. Therefore, the other aspects of worship are closely connected with this one. Worship requires our response to God’s initiative in the Gospel, our dependence on His enablement through the Spirit, our obedience to God’s governance in His Word, so that we might be satisfied in beholding His glory and worshiping Him.

[1] Engaging With God, David Peterson, pg. 100.
[2] Give Praise to God, J. Ligon Dunca, pg. 52.
[3] ibid., p. 35

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