In my last post I challenged the widely held view that ‘worship’ is an all-of-life activity. That assertion was not at all denying the call of God for his people to live lives of complete obedience to him in heart, mind and action—the right and proper response to being saved. Rather, I was contending that the Bible does not see such obedience as ‘worship’ so much as ‘service’.
Romans 12:1 in fact likens our service of God to the offerings presented for sacrifice in the OT temple—absolute and without compromise. Romans 12 is not, however, the end point of a biblical theology of worship. Rather, it provides a lovely summary of the whole Bible’s teaching on the life lived in response to salvation. Just as the service of Israel occurred under the umbrella of God’s grace, with no merit attached, so it is now for the Christian.
I pointed out that the original word behind ‘service’ in this and similar verses is the Greek word latruein. This word is commonly found alongside the word for ‘worship’, proskynein (though they aren’t synonymous).
Why all this is important is that there seems to be a great deal of confusion amongst Christians, in theology and in practice, in distinguishing between worship, service, the church, and—by implication—the things that go on in church, such as singing.
Those who subscribe to the idea that worship is all of life (based on, for example, a poor translation of Romans 12), generally go on to say that:
- the embedded OT temple connotations of service must also apply to the church gathering; or more simply:
- as church is part of all-of-life, then it too must rightly be called worship.
While I disagree with these conclusions, I actually want to leave all this hanging for a bit, other than to say that:
- Paul never directly applies all-of-life service to his doctrine of the church—which is where you might expect his application to go if he was envisioning a transformed new covenant temple-church.
- Outside of Paul’s letters, for example where cultic service appears in Hebrews, it is generally there to show the insufficiency of such service to satisfy God, and not to encourage ongoing cultic service as an actual practice of the church.
So if we can, let’s move on to check out briefly what issues come with ‘true’ worship.
If service (latruein) is the response of obedience to our salvation, then worship (proskynein) is the attitude that drives that response. Originally, worship meant to physically bow before or lie prostrate before someone you were showing honour to. As the attitude behind the action (i.e. honour/respect) is key, the Bible often ditches the bowing and uses worship purely in the abstract sense, as we often do (e.g. “He worshipped the ground she walked on”).
Here’s a super quick biblical theology of proskynein worship:
- In the OT you could worship anything you liked—God, rulers, idols, whatever
- In the Gospels the only person ever worshipped is Jesus, e.g. by the Magi, the disciples (usually both physically and in attitude)
- In the NT letters, worship gets pretty scarce—but has some big eschatological moments—such as in the gathering around the throne in Revelation 5, and every knee bowing before Christ in Philippians 2.
So rather than landing on Romans 12:1, the Bible’s theology of worship finds its fulfilment at the feet of Jesus, where all people are in submission to him whether willingly or not. It isn’t the things we do which generate this worship, but it is the core attitude of our hearts toward God. And crucially, that attitude is affected in us by him.
This idea is made clear by Jesus in John 4. In discussing the nature of worship with the Samaritan woman, Jesus declares that true worship is not to be tied to religious places or practices. Rather, it happens at the level of the heart by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. It is he who creates new, submissive and obedient hearts towards God. In short, to worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) means we worship God when we are in Christ. If ever there was a biblical command to silence talk of church as worship, it is here. Jesus claims not just to be the object of our worship, but is in fact our only means of worshipping.
While there is so much more to say on all this, I want us to note that a physical expression of worship seems to be something that happens only when Jesus is actually present—it occurs when Jesus is on earth and when he is in heaven. What happens between those two points is “worship in spirit and truth”. In either case, the attitude of the heart is the key.
And finally, note the lack of connection again between worship and church. Look up some of Paul’s classic church passages (1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians) and you’ll find no reference to worship (apart from the one describing the reaction of the unbeliever entering the church gathering). They are just not there—because worship doesn’t work like that for us. It is seemingly not an ongoing activity for the gathered church. We worship God by being in Christ. We worship in the same way that we are saved.
I admit that this feels a little unsatisfying to us. Worship is a big thing in the Bible, and we want to be part of it! It is just that worship finds its fulfilment in Christ—in a way that doesn’t require us to do anything past putting our faith in him. The attitude of worship is now in the DNA of the sanctified believer—and it is then worked out in active service of Christ.
The problem that Christians have always had, though, is that they want to do something—rather than trusting in salvation by grace through faith alone.
1. Worship language
DA Carson has suggested that whilst our worship talk can often be biblically inappropriate, it is too hard, nevertheless, to change what has become common usage. The solution: redefine worship so that it fits our practice. He suggests we embrace ‘corporate worship’, upholding the supposition that church is a special part of all-of-life worship. While I can’t see that Carson and Peterson etc. have ever properly managed to argue this, the big problem isn’t actually about whether we are using the W word to describe church or singing or eating donuts or whatever. It is fundamentally a gospel issue (see the next point).
I don’t even want to be legalistic and have worship police rounding up song leaders who introduce with, “Let’s enter into a time of worship as we sing this next song”. The solution to that is for us all to better understand the nature of true worship and the nature of good singing—but that is another topic altogether.
2. Grace not works
When we talk of doing acts of worship, whether it be all-of-life or within church, then we miss the whole point of it being a fundamental attitude of the heart—an attitude affected in us by Christ to honour God. If we set out to worship, then we will in effect be doing a work—something to satisfy God in a way the cross of Christ can’t. This is the big danger of bringing OT cultic practice into our picture of all-of-life service, and it gets worse if we confuse that service with true worship. Yes, Israel’s sacrifices were to be done under the umbrella of God’s saving grace. But they never got that part particularly right, and neither do Christians who go down this route. Works in the disguise of religion are the hardest ones to see.
3. Worship songs
When we then sing songs that say “I worship you, O God” or “Here I am to worship”, we are in danger of saying that we are unwilling to trust the cross of Christ to perfect our relationship with God. There may be a worthy sentiment behind such words, but you are in effect bypassing the gospel of grace. If we emphasize singing too much in these terms then singing itself will become a work, rather than a response (see next point). Again, I’m not suggesting we ban any song that uses the word worship. Just try to make sure it agrees with biblical usage. And a good rule with the examples above would be to ask: “Does the Bible ever use such a phrase, or use worship language in this way?” Answer: No.
The early church got a bit too hung up on the liturgy continuing the course of OT temple practice. By the medieval period this had developed into full-blown mysticism—mysticism being about experiencing God through the sights, sounds, smells and sacrifices of ‘worship’. This was (partially!) dealt with by the Reformation, but it still exists today in much of Christianity. For some churches and movements, music is now at the heart of one’s experience of God through worship.
Now, having got all that off my chest, I would like encourage a way of doing church (particularly thinking about the preaching and singing), that is true, Spirit-filled, Word-centred, done in the context of grace, and which satisfies the affections—without the need to do worship or to experience God. But that is in the next post…