The Gospel and the Discipline of Worship

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by Donald S. Whitney on Wednesday, May 02, 2012

There may be nothing in the realm of religion by which people vainly attempt to establish their acceptability to God more than by acts of public or private worship. As a result, worship can degrade into one of the most legalistic activities a person can pursue. In the minds of many, if you go to church you are right with God. They are convinced that God accepts anyone who worships Him. They believe that because they regularly attend an event where the gospel is proclaimed, they have sufficiently participated in the gospel.

We need the gospel before we can worship

Many worshippers fail to realize that it is possible to worship God in vain. In Matthew 15:9, Jesus quotes the rebuke of God given through the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” So people can worship the true God – even with the God-given words and forms of worship – and yet worship in vain.

Jesus said of Himself, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), meaning that apart from a knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ there is no access to or genuine worship of God. Of course, more than a mere knowledge of the gospel is needed to worship God. As Jesus declared, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). In order to “worship in spirit and truth,” a person must be indwelled by the One who is “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive” (John 17:17).

Similarly, the Apostle Paul affirmed, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). This doesn’t mean, of course, that a person can’t speak the phrase unless indwelt by the Spirit. Instead, it teaches that no one can say “Jesus is Lord” as a genuine confession of worshipful submission to Christ apart from the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence.

Only those who receive the gospel – who believe the message about the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ – receive “the Spirit of truth” who enables them to worship God acceptably. But no one can believe a message they have not heard or do not comprehend. In short, a person must have at least a basic understanding of the gospel before they can understand and engage in true worship.

The gospel takes the natural, worldly view that worship is a person justifying himself by reaching up to God, and corrects it with the truth that worship is a person responding to the God who has reached down through the gospel of Jesus Christ. People do not decide to become worshippers of God. Rather, the gospel produces worshippers. God, through the gospel, changes a person’s nature. Worship, then, changes from mere participation in the outward forms of veneration into adoration and enjoyment of God from the heart.

God made our hearts to find their greatest joy and satisfaction in Him. So when, through the gospel, we “come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Galatians 4:9), our hearts turn to God and open in worship to Him like flowers turn and open to the sun. Thus it is that worship begins with an understanding of the gospel.

We need the gospel during worship

The gospel not only prepares us to worship, it guides and sustains our worship. In biblical worship, we proclaim the gospel in word and sacrament. In the worship of God we read, preach, and sing His gospel. The same gospel message that kindled the initial fire of worship in the believer’s heart rekindles worship as we proclaim and remember the gospel.

We also need the gospel during worship because of the sins we commit in worship. We may sing, speak, or pray thoughtlessly or hypocritically. The application of the gospel to our minds and hearts in worship encourages us that our worship sins are forgiven and that the Lord receives even in imperfect worship.

The gospel reminds us that our worship, although flawed, is acceptable because of what Christ did for us. He made worshippers out of rebels. Because our worship comes to the Father in Jesus’ name, He sanctifies our worship to make it pleasing to the Father.

Yet some misunderstand the new freedom that comes through the gospel and think that subsequent worship is unimportant. Thus, they use their gospel “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Galatians 5:13) and neglect worship. Believers must sustain intentional worship, and by this overcome the temptation toward distraction by “the cares of the world” (Matthew 13:22).

Love of the gospel and love of worshiping the God of the gospel are inseparable. A true grasp of the former leads to devotion to the latter.

Donald S. Whitney is Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Senior Associate Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

 

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