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How THEN SHALL We WORSHIP?
BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES TO GUIDE US TODAY
By R.C. SPROUL
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 R. C. Sproul
All rights reserved.
THE FORM OF WORSHIP
It was one of those lovely autumn Saturday afternoons when people's thoughts turn to football, golf, or raking leaves. But I was doing something else entirely: reading again the Discourse on Method and Meditations of René Descartes.
I appreciate philosophers such as Descartes who pursue the truth by going back to first principles in seeking for foundations upon which everything else is established and from which everything else flows. In my own activity in theology and philosophy, I use this approach frequently, because it is so easy to lose sight of the forest when you get caught among the trees. When I am confused, I like to back up and say: "Okay, what do we know for sure? What is the foundation upon which everything is built?"
That is exactly what I want to do in this study of worship. We are living in a time when there is a manifest crisis of worship in the church. It is almost as if we are in the midst of a rebellion among people who find church less than meaningful. They are bored. They see the experience of Sunday morning as an exercise in irrelevance. As a reaction against that, it seems that almost any church we visit is experimenting with new forms and new patterns of worship. This experimentation has provoked many disputes over the nature of worship.
The worship battle lines tend to be drawn between what is called liturgical worship and nonliturgical worship. In a very real sense, these labels represent a false dilemma. In the first place, any service of worship I have ever attended could be called liturgical. All that liturgical means is that there is a liturgy, an order or a pattern, and that certain things are done in the service. The same kind of thing may be said with respect to formal and informal worship. Informal simply means "without form." We cannot, however, have corporate worship with no form. There is some form to every worship service, so there is really no such thing as worship that is informal in the literal sense. The issue is not whether we are going to have a liturgy or a form. The question is, "What will be the structure, the style, and the content of the liturgy?"
Once we have settled on a form, we must ask whether it is a legitimate form. To find the answer to that question, we need to return to first principles, to the foundations, and search out what God wants us to do in worship. The issue is not what stimulates or excites us. Though that is not an insignificant or unimportant issue, our overriding concern needs to be what is pleasing to God. The question we need to ask is this: "If God Himself were to design worship, what would it look like?"
We are not left to speculate on the answer to that question, because vast portions of the Old Testament text are specifically devoted to a style and practice of worship that God Himself ordained and established among His people.
Of course, we cannot go to the Old Testament to discover what is there in terms of the format of worship and then simply carry it across and superimpose it onto the New Testament community. The reason for that is obvious: much of the ritual of the Old Testament focused on the sacrificial system, which was fulfilled once and for all in the atonement of Christ.
Take the rite of circumcision in the Old Testament. When Moses was derelict in circumcising his son, God pursued Moses and threatened to execute him because he had failed to follow God's prescription of giving the sacred rite of circumcision to his children (Exod. 4:24–26). Clearly, then, God regarded circumcision as extremely important. But if I said that we must have our sons circumcised as a religious sign and ritual, I would be under God's condemnation. That is clear from the book of Galatians, where Paul spoke of dealing with those who wanted to insist on total continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament (Gal. 2). If we follow their lead and insist on total continuity between the testaments, we risk falling into the Judaizing heresy and denying the fulfillment of the covenant that was accomplished by Jesus. Clearly, then, there is some discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
However, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that there is no continuity at all between the testaments. The early church passed through a great crisis concerning biblical continuity. This crisis centered on a man named Marcion, who was a "heresiarch," the arch heretic of all time regarding biblical continuity. Marcion taught that the God of the New Testament who is revealed in Jesus is not the same God who appears in the Old Testament. Marcion saw the God of the Old Testament as a tyrannical being, a mean, vengeful, and wrathful God. But the loving Father revealed by Jesus in the New Testament is the true God, Marcion said.
Of course, someone could have pointed out to Marcion that Jesus frequently quoted the Old Testament text and addressed the Old Testament God as His Father. Such passages were indeed problematic for Marcion, so he took his scissors and paste, and altered Scripture so that it conveyed the doctrine he wanted it to convey. He produced an expurgated, or abridged, version of the New Testament. He was the first scholar to offer a formal canon of the New Testament to the church. But it was radically reduced in scope from the New Testament we know today.
The church responded to that heresy by saying, "No, this is not Scripture. This is a truncated version of Scripture." The church did that because it saw the serious danger of looking at the God of the New Testament as alien to the God of the Old Testament. Prompted by the crisis ignited by Marcion's heresy, the church began to formalize the canon of Scripture. In the process, the church affirmed the Scriptural teaching that God is immutable, that His character does not change from generation to generation, from year to year, or from day to day. In other words, the church said that there is continuity from the Old Testament to the New in at least one aspect: God Himself. So, while we have some discontinuity, there is an abiding continuity as well.
I do not know of anyone today who teaches pure, unvarnished Marcionism, but his heresy is alive and well in the evangelical church in our unprecedented neglect of the Old Testament. People, particularly in America, are conditioned to think of Christianity only in terms of the New Testament. I am sure this is why we have a crisis of morality in the church and the pervasive presence of an antinomian theology and behavioral system. Simply put, we have woefully neglected the Old Testament, just as if there is nothing but discontinuity between the two testaments.
An example of this can be seen in our approach to the law of God. Some years ago, I received a letter from a scholar who was upset about some theological issues. He complained because one of my colleagues had charged some other theologians with being antinomian, that is, opposed to the law of God. This man felt an affinity for these other theologians, and he wrote to me because he knew I agreed with the charge of antinomianism. In his letter, this man asked: "How can he charge these men with antinomianism? We are not antinomians. We believe that Christians are responsible to obey all of the commandments of Christ." But then he added, "Of course, we also believe that none of the laws of the Old Testament impose any moral obligation on believers."
I answered him this way: "From now on, I will not discuss or use this term antinomian with these other people. Instead of using them as an example, I'll use you, because when you say that the law of God in the Old Testament has no moral obligation on the Christian, you are making the classic expression of what has been defined historically as antinomianism." This man had simply concluded that none of the laws of God in the Old Testament have continuity in the New Testament.
That is one major way we see neglect of the Old Testament; we also see it in worship. We behave as if nothing God said on the subject of worship in the Old Testament applies today. If we are to come back to the foundation, if we are to please God in our worship, does it not make sense to ask whether there has ever been a time when the unchanging God Himself revealed the kind of worship that was pleasing to Him? I believe that the answer is yes, and I believe that there was such a time.
When we affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, we are often charged with holding a view of inspiration that teaches a dictation theory of inspiration. Of course, historic orthodoxy does not teach such a view. The church has never taught that God dictated every word of, for example, the book of Romans, with Paul acting as a secretary and simply recording the words God dictated from heaven. Conservative theologians actually bend over backward to show that the mode of inspiration is not expressed in terms of dictation.
However, if there ever was a time when God dictated revelation, it was in those passages in the Pentateuch where He told the people word for word, line upon line, precept upon precept how He wanted Old Testament worship to be conducted. He told the Israelites how the tabernacle was to be built. He gave detailed instructions for the ephod and the garments of the priests. He laid down specific laws governing the behavior of the priests and the people in and around the sanctuary. He outlined the services, the offerings, and the festivals. In other words, God took great pains to be very specific about the form of worship in Israel.
Yes, there is discontinuity. We do not have a temple now. The curtain of the Holy of Holies has been torn. We do not make offerings on the altar of sacrifice today. But there is continuity, too. I believe we can discern principles in the patterns of worship that God revealed from heaven to His people in the Old Testament, and that those principles can and should inform the patterns our worship follows.
We must be careful, however, as we dig into these Old Testament passages in upcoming chapters, that we do not allow the pursuit of proper form in worship to become an end in itself. That has been the case far too often in the history of God's people, from ancient Israel to Jesus's time to the Reformation, with sad results in each instance.
People use various adjectives to differentiate styles of worship. Some speak of high liturgy or low liturgy, or they speak of formal worship in relative degrees, depending on whether the ministers or priests wear vestments, whether printed prayers or spontaneous prayers are used, whether the music is classical or contemporary, and other criteria. These adjectives are employed because different styles of worship have arisen as a reaction against what could be called a high liturgy or a classical, traditional pattern of worship. Why has that reaction occurred?
At the time of the Reformation, some people in Protestant churches reacted against the traditional Roman Catholic style of worship. Some of that reaction was theological, but not all of it. Some of it was based on a zealous desire to do nothing in the way Rome did it. For instance, during the time Martin Luther hid at Wartburg Castle and translated the Bible from the original languages into German, one of his disciples in Wittenberg, Andreas Carlstadt, started vandalizing churches, smashing stained-glass windows, overturning the furniture, and doing all sorts of damage in the name of reform. When Luther heard of this, he was upset and disciplined Carlstadt for his overzealous reaction against the sacred things of the past.
Carlstadt erroneously directed his ire against the "form" of Roman Catholic worship. The problem was not with the form but with the formalism into which Rome had fallen. The word formalism means that the form becomes the end in itself. Another word that means much the same is externalism, which is the condition that happens when all that exists are the external elements, while the internal elements, the heart and soul, are absent. The Reformers' true goal was to cure the formalism and externalism of the Roman Catholic Church. In the same way, the Old Testament prophets were vehement in their denunciations of the dead, empty formalism into which Jewish worship had degenerated.
As a seminary student, I had to read two books on worship, one that favored a low liturgy and another that favored a high liturgy. The book that favored the low liturgy was presented as an expression of "prophetic" worship in the church, whereas the book that advocated a high liturgy presented itself as following the priestly tradition of worship. After reading these books, we students had to defend one or the other style of worship. I was astonished to discover that I was the only person in the class who favored the high liturgy and the priestly tradition. My professor was equally surprised at me, because he knew that I was a committed evangelical Christian, and evangelicals traditionally shy away from liturgical worship.
Why did I choose the high liturgy position? The author of the book on the priestly tradition convinced me by showing that when we go back to the prophetic critique of the deadly forms of worship that God rejected in Israel, the prophets were reformers but not revolutionaries. What is the difference? The prophets nowhere rejected the liturgies of worship that God had ordained for His people. Instead, the prophets denounced the decadence of the people's practice in following these liturgies. The problem was not with the liturgies; the problem was with the worshippers who came with cold hearts and went through the liturgies simply by rote, with uninvolved and untouched hearts.
Jesus, too, was a reformer in this sense. Exhibit A of externalism in the Bible is the Pharisees, who went through all of the outward rites, all of the liturgies that God had prescribed, but their hearts were not in it. They skated on the surface of superficial lip service to God. Jesus said this of them: "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me'" (Matt. 15:7–9a).
There is no doubt that God wants His worship to have form, so the question is not whether we should have a liturgy or not. The issue is whether the liturgy is biblical in its content and, ultimately, whether we are using the liturgy to worship in spirit and in truth. No matter what the liturgy is, whether it is plain and simple or high and complex, it can be formalized and externalized so that it is corrupted to the point that God despises it. As we seek out the forms of worship that please God, we must be vigilant lest we fall into formalism or externalism.CHAPTER 2
SACRIFICES IN FAITH
The most common word for worship in the Greek New Testament is familiar to us in our own term for false worship. The word idolatry, which means "the worship of idols," is simply a combination of the word idol and the Greek word latria. But in the New Testament, latria is the word that is translated most frequently as "worship" in its proper, positive sense.
The concept of worship embodied in the word latria is found very early in the Old Testament and throughout the history of the Jews. According to scholars, the term originally referred to a particular service that people rendered with a view to gaining some kind of reward or compensation on an earthly scale. However, it was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament almost exclusively with reference to cultic service. When I use the term cultic, I am not referring to cults or to the occult but to the cultus, which was the center of worship, the behavior that was focused in and around the tabernacle or the temple in the Old Testament. Cultic service encompassed the liturgical and ritual behavior of the Jews in the Old Testament. And so, the term latria referred to the practices of worship in the religious life of Israel.
There were three basic components of this concept of latria in the Jewish nation. They were the offering of praise to God, the offering of prayer to God, and the offering of sacrifice to God. In other words, worship in Israel was understood basically in terms of praise, prayer, and the offering of sacrifices. Of the three, the component that was most central to Old Testament worship was the third, the offering of sacrifices. In fact, we can reduce Old Testament worship to a single, central focus—going to the tabernacle or the temple to offer sacrifices. Even praise and prayer were spiritual forms of sacrifice. That was why, in the elaborate tabernacle and temple, God ordained that there should be an altar of incense where the prayers of the saints were symbolically offered up to God as sacrifices.
Excerpted from How THEN SHALL We WORSHIP? by R.C. SPROUL. Copyright © 2013 R. C. Sproul. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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