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PREACHING AS WORSHIP
The Heart of Christian Worship
The subject of worship is now one of the most controversial issues in the local congregation, if a survey of the literature on worship, and the conversations currently taking place among the churches are true indicators. In fact, many current book titles in evangelical publishing suggest that what the church faces today is "worship warfare." That very phrase—the combination of the words worship and war—should lead us to very sincere and sober reflection.
It is true that worship has led to some warfare. In local congregations we see not only confusion but also fighting, controversy, and splitting. And what is the meaning of all this? My concern is that the issue of worship will define not only our church services but also our theology and our beliefs about God. There is no more important issue for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ than that we worship God as He Himself would have us to worship.
And just how do we do that? Most evangelicals would quickly agree that worship is central to the life of the church, but beyond that, there would be no consensus to several unavoidable questions: What is worship? And what does God desire that we should do in worship? Though most evangelicals mention the preaching of the Word as a necessary or customary part of worship, the prevailing model of worship in evangelical churches is increasingly defined by music, along with innovations such as drama and video presentations. Preaching has in large part retreated, and a host of entertaining innovations have taken its place.
Any consideration of Christian preaching must begin with the realization that preaching is essentially an act of worship. Therefore, to understand what is required of us as preachers, we must first understand what it means to worship. The Lord Himself reminded us that God seeks those worshipers who will worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:23). But what does it mean to worship God in spirit? What does it mean to worship Him in truth? And how does preaching fit into all that?
LINKING WORSHIP WITH THEOLOGY
Worshiping God in truth is fundamentally a matter of theology. Yet theology is by definition not an ivory-tower discipline. It is not merely a form of academic discourse. When rightly conducted, theology is the conversation of the people of God seeking to understand the Lord whom we worship and to know how He wills to be worshiped. Geoffrey Wainwright of Duke University made this point poignantly when he entitled his systematic theology book Doxology. Theology and worship are inextricably linked.
Thus we should be reminded that the purpose of the theologian—and the preacher—is to serve the church so that the people of God worship Him more faithfully. By understanding God's revelation in His Word, we know how He would wish to be worshiped. So we might ask in that light, what are the proper conditions of evangelical worship? Those persons who claim to be established in the gospel and submitted to the Word of God, how should they worship?
We know the history of worship through the ages. We know what took place in the Reformation and what transpired in the English reforms. We know what took place as features were stripped away that were considered to be unbiblical, and yet now in so many ways we see those same things returning. What is the condition of evangelical worship today? In answer to that question, it is not an exaggeration to suggest words such as pandemonium, confusion, and consternation.
In the midst of the upheaval, there is a great deal of perspective to be found from reading the late A. W. Tozer. This is what he said some decades ago:
We have the breezy, self-confident Christians with little affinity for Christ and His cross. We have the joy-bell boys that can bounce out there and look as much like a game show host as possible. Yet, they are doing it for Jesus' sake?! The hypocrites! They're not doing it for Jesus' sake at all; they are doing it in their own carnal flesh and are using the church as a theater because they haven't yet reached the place where the legitimate theater would take them.
Tozer takes his argument further:
It is now common practice in most evangelical churches to offer the people, especially the young people, a maximum of entertainment and a minimum of serious instruction. It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend meeting where the only attraction is God. One can only conclude that God's professed children are bored with Him, for they must be wooed to meeting with a stick of striped candy in the form of religious movies, games and refreshments.
This has influenced the whole pattern of church life, and even brought into being a new type of church architecture designed to house the golden calf.
So we have the strange anomaly of orthodoxy in creed and heterodoxy in practice. The striped-candy technique has been so fully integrated into our present religious thinking that it is simply taken for granted. Its victims never dream that it is not a part of the teachings of Christ and His apostles.
Any objection to the carryings-on of our present golden calf Christianity is met with the triumphant reply, "But we are winning them!" And winning them to what? To true discipleship? To cross-carrying? To self-denial? To separation from the world? To crucifixion of the flesh? To holy living? To nobility of character? To a despising of the world's treasures? To hard self-discipline? To love for God? To total commital to Christ? Of course, the answer to all these questions is "no."
These words were written several decades ago, but Tozer certainly saw the future.
BEING CAREFUL NOT TO CORRUPT OUR WORSHIP
Kent Hughes, senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, has also written perceptively on this issue. Hughes put it this way:
The unspoken but increasingly common assumption of today's Christendom is that worship is primarily for us—to meet our needs. Such worship services are entertainment focused, and the worshipers are uncommitted spectators who are silently grading the performance. From this perspective preaching becomes a homiletics of consensus—preaching to felt needs—man's conscious agenda instead of God's. Such preaching is always topical and never textual. Biblical information is minimized, and the sermons are short and full of stories. Anything and everything that is suspected of making the marginal attender uncomfortable is removed from the service.... Taken to the nth degree, this philosophy instills a tragic self-centeredness. That is, everything is judged by how it affects man. This terribly corrupts one's theology.
Does God care how He is worshiped?
Hughes is right. Our confused worship corrupts our theology, and our weak theology corrupts our worship. Are these voices alarmist? They do mean to sound an alarm. But there are many others who are saying, "Don't worry. Be happy. Go worship." One recent church growth author has written:
Worship is like a car to get us from where we are to where God wants us to be. Transportation and communication are imperative; the mode or vehicle is not imperative. Some worship God in cathedrals with the rich traditional organ tones of Bach and Feuer from the classics of Europe. They travel in a Mercedes Benz. Some worship God in simple wooden churches with a steeple pointing heavenward. They sing the gospel songs of Charles Wesley or Fanny Cosby. They travel in a Ford or Chevy. Some worship God with the contemporary sounds of praise music with a gentle beat. They travel in a convertible sports coupe. Some worship God to the whine of a guitar and the amplifiers to the max. They travel on a motorcycle, without a muffler.
But surely there is more to worship than the spectrum of taste from a Mercedes Benz to a motorcycle. There must be something weightier here. "Worship is like a car to get us from where we are to where God wants us to be." Can that be said with a straight face as we listen to the Scripture speak of worship?
We know from the onset that there are many different Christian opinions concerning worship. This does not come to us as news. But the real issue is whether God Himself has an opinion on this issue. Does God care how He is worshiped? Or is He some kind of laissezfaire deity who cares not how His people worship Him but instead is happy with the hope that some people somewhere will worship Him in some way?
Scripture reveals that God in fact does care how His people worship Him. Leviticus 10:1–3 (NASB) serves as a witness to this point.
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, "It is what the Lord spoke, saying, 'By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.'"
Nadab and Abihu were Aaron's sons. They were priests and so had every right to offer sacrifices to God in worship. But they did what God had not commanded them to do. They brought strange fire to the altar, and because of that they were consumed. Clearly then, God does have an opinion about worship. He is a jealous God—a God who loves us, but a God who also instructs and commands His people to worship Him rightly.
Scripture makes clear that worship is something we do, not just something we attend. It is not merely an issue for the pastor and other ministers, nor for the musicians and those who plan the service. Worship is an issue for the entire congregation, for worship is something we do together. It is our corporate and common responsibility to worship God as He desires.
A PATTERN FOR WORSHIP FROM GOD'S WORD
Where then shall we turn for instruction on how we ought to worship? There is only one place we can turn, and that is to the Word of God. The norm of our worship must be the Word of God, the Word that He Himself has spoken. As we turn to this Word, we see a pattern of acceptable worship, a pattern that is repeated throughout the fabric of Scripture from beginning to end. Scripture is, as the Reformers confessed, norma ormans non normata, "the norm of norms which cannot be normed." That is what we mean when we say "sola scriptura"—that Scripture is the norm of our worship. There is nothing external to Scripture that can "norm" or correct it.
Scripture itself sets the terms, and so we turn to the Bible to learn how God would have us worship.
HOW AUTHENTIC WORSHIP BEGINS: A TRUE VISION OF THE LIVING GOD
In Isaiah 6:1–8, we are given a picture of authentic worship, one that teaches us what God expects of His people when they worship Him. First of all, the prophet Isaiah experienced a theophany, a vision of the true and living God. And if we are to worship God as He would have us to worship, we also must see God as He is. Right worship begins with a vision of the one true and living God.
He is what we are not. We are finite; He is infinite.
Isaiah recounts that it was in the year of King Uzziah's death that he saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. The throne is a symbol of kingship and sovereignty, indicating that the one who sits upon it is both king and judge. It represents both power and righteousness. But there is even more, for the One whose train filled the temple is not alone. Verse 2 tells us that "above him stood the sera phim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew." The six wings of these seraphim—which literally means "burning ones"—convey a great deal of symbolism. The wings with which they covered their faces must certainly indicate humility, while the covering of the feet represents purity. The seraphim knew in whose presence they were, and they dared not look into His face.
These winged creatures are not merely flying, hovering there in silence. They call out to one another, saying, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory!" Those words—"Holy, Holy, Holy"—are known as the "trisagion." In the Hebrew language there is no adequate comparative or superlative form, so repetition is used in this way in order to make a point. This thrice-repeated pattern occurs again in Revelation 4:8–11: "And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come" (NASB). The early church saw in this pattern a reference to the Trinity, and looking back with New Testament eyes, we can certainly understand that affirmation. But the central point of this construction seems to be one of emphasis.
Take Genesis 14:10, for example, where the original Hebrew speaks of someone falling into a "pit-pit." That construction may be translated as a "deep and great pit." It is one thing to fall into a pit, but it is quite another to fall into a "pit-pit"! The point is that when the seraphim call out, "Holy, Holy, Holy," they are declaring God's essence, identity, and being in terms of an all-surpassing holiness.
The holiness of God refers to His separateness from His creation. He is what we are not. We are finite; He is infinite. In other words, God is transcendent, and His holiness reveals the difference and the infinite contrast between His nature and ours. J. Alec Motyer defines holiness as "God's total and unique moral majesty." What a wonderful expression! God's moral majesty is complete and without rival. E. J. Young similarly suggests that holiness is the entirety of the divine perfection that separates God from His creation. That which is almost beyond our definition is what makes God, God. Holiness includes all God's attributes. His holiness is what defines Him.
I wonder if the vision of God held by so many who come to worship is anything like what the seraphim are telling us here. Do we worship with the understanding that God is holy and that "the whole earth is full of His glory"? I fear not. I wonder if in our worship we encounter anything like this vision of God. Do those who come to our services of worship come face-to-face with the reality of God? Or do they go away with a vision of some lesser God, some dehydrated deity? Worship is the people of God gathering together to confess His worthiness, His "worth-ship." How can we do that if we do not make clear who God is? Our very pattern of worship must testify to the character of God.
Would an observer have any idea of the God of the Bible from our worship?
Worship has both objective and subjective components. Certainly worship is subjective. There is a personal, individual experience to be had in worship. But Scripture also makes clear that the subjective experience of worship must be predicated on the objective truth of the true and living God, the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture.
Roger Scruton, a well-known British philosopher, has suggested that worship is the most important indicator of what a person or group of people really believes about God. He writes: "God is defined in the act of worship far more precisely than he is defined by any theology." In other words, if you want to know what a people really believe about God, don't spend time reading their theologians. Watch them worship. Listen to what they sing and to how they pray. Then you will know what they believe about this God whom they worship.
I am haunted by the thought that in the average evangelical church, the God of the Bible would never be known by watching us worship. Instead, what we have in so many churches is "McWorship" of a "McDeity." But what kind of God is that superficial, that weightless, and that insignificant? Would an observer have any idea of the God of the Bible from our worship? I wonder at times if this is an accidental development, or if it is an intentional evasion.
George Hunter III suggests that a thriving church must practice "celebrative worship." He offers two reasons: "1) To provide a celebration to which pre-Christians can relate and find meaning. 2) To remove the cringe factor by providing a service our people would love to invite their friends to, rather than a service they would dread inviting their friends to." Here is a fascinating reversal. The purpose of celebrative worship, first, is to provide "a celebration to which pre-Christians can relate." But, second, he suggests removing anything he identifies as "the cringe factor" by providing a service to which our people would love to invite their friends, not one where the thought of inviting their friends would lead to a feeling of dread.
Excerpted from He Is Not Silent by R. Albert Mohler Jr., Jim Vincent. Copyright © 2008 R. Albert Mohler Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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1. Preaching as Worship: The Heart of Christian Worship
2. The Ground of Preaching: Our Triune God
3. Preaching Is Expository: A Theology of Exposition
4. Expository Preaching: Its Definition and Characteristics
5. A Steward of Mysteries: The Preacher's Authority and Purpose
6. "Did Not Our Hearts Burn Within Us?": Preaching the Bible's Big Story
7. The Pastor as Theologian: Preaching as Doctrine
8. Stranger Than It Used to Be: Preaching to a Postmodern Culture
9. The Urgency of Preaching: An Exhortation to Preachers
10. On Preaching to Dry Bones: An Encouragement to Preachers
Posted June 28, 2011
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