Rhythms of Grace: How the Church's Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel

Rhythms of Grace: How the Church's Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel

by Mike Cosper


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Ultimately answering the question of what is biblical worship, this book shows how the gospel is all about worship and worship is all about the gospel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433533426
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 03/31/2013
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 318,073
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Mike Cosper is the director of the Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture, where he works to create resources for Christians living in a post-Christian world. Prior to that, he was a founding pastor at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where he served for sixteen years as the pastor of worship and arts.

Read an Excerpt



The gospel is a story about worship. It begins with promise and serenity, spins wildly and terribly off course, and is rescued in the most unexpected and surprising way possible. I want to tell that story.

Worship as Story

I want to tell it because I think we don't get it. When we say the word worship, a lot of activity comes to mind — singing, reading the Scriptures, preaching, praying, celebrating baptism and the Lord's Supper — but we often see those practices as ends in themselves. Doing so defines worship in our minds as merely a list of things that we do even if we aren't certain about why we do them. They become empty duties, and we start to believe that it's necessary to do them to earn God's favor. Worship then becomes associated with religiosity — a belief that good behavior qualifies us for membership in God's family. We begin to doubt our standing before God any time we miss a worship service, or we don't participate enthusiastically, or we don't identify emotionally with the content of the songs, prayers, and sermons. Obviously, we just need to try harder and get it right at the next gathering.

Or do we? The story of worship as told in the Bible defines worship in a radically different and surprising way. It's a story that surprises us because we discover that it doesn't primarily feature us. The star of the story is God, who is at the center of all worship but is also at its origins in history and its origins in our hearts. The story of worship (like the story of the gospel) is all about God.

I want to tell that story because I believe it will reinvigorate our passion for worship and for all the activities we normally associate with it. The gospel story is the worship story. Worship was God's idea as he initiated creation. Just when it looked as though sin had corrupted worship beyond repair, he rescued it by sending his Son and making a way through him to worship the Father again. The Son, in turn, sent his Spirit, who awakened corpses like you and me and put a song in our hearts that we'll be singing with every breath from here to eternity.

So buckle up. Let's dive into the story of worship, which is to say, let's dive into the story of the gospel. Because the gospel is all about worship.

Before the Foundations of the World

When we think about the beginning of the gospel story, we tend to think Genesis 1. There the author brings us to the explosive moment when God spoke creation into existence. It's a good place to begin, for sure, but perhaps we should start in the moments before then. To even imagine that, we can hear the words from the Gospel of John, where the apostle tells us that before the dawning of creation, there was the loving community of the Trinity (see John 1:1; 17:24).

So before the world began, there was love. It flowed — perfect, complete, and constant — between the three persons of the Trinity. This love was an unending appreciation, a perpetual beholding and rejoicing in the goodness and perfection of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The scene was what theologian Fred Sanders calls the "happy land of the Trinity." It was, and is, a totally self-sufficient community of love and glory.

At its heart, worship is rooted in this love. The Trinitarian community is, in a sense, perpetually beholding one another with love and amazement. We're able to peek through the windows on that love in the Bible, where we see the Son worship the Father, the Father adore and exalt the Son, and the Spirit being both celebrated and celebrating the others. The word worship comes from the Old English weorthscipe, which combines two words meaning "ascribe worth." The Trinity can be said to be always at worship because the three persons of the Godhead perfectly behold the worth and wonder of one another.

To our imaginations, it's probably strange (at the least) or gross (at the worst) to envision anyone perpetually exalting himself. We live in a world full of bluster and bragging, where Nicki Minaj boasts "I'm the best," LeBron James tattoos "Chosen 1" across his shoulders, and everyone from pastors to porn stars areself-celebrating on Twitter and Facebook. The idea that God would be associated with anything like that behavior is disconcerting.

But God's own self-adoration is nothing like ours. Unlike our own self-congratulatory spirit, God's view of himself is unmistaken and unexaggerated. As hymn writer Fredrick Lehman said:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

God's glory and perfection are inexhaustible. We can't say enough about how glorious he truly is. The greatest gift he can give us is a revelation of himself. Exalting anything else would be cruel.

Creation: God's Overflowing Love

It's out of the overflow of this endless love that God created the world. The whole Trinity is present at creation's dawn as the Father speaks, the Son — who is the Word — carries out the creative work, and the Spirit fills the creation with heavenly presence: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" (Gen. 1:1–3).

In The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien imagines the creation of the world as a divine chorale, with creation appearing out of nothingness like a glorious unfurling tapestry as God sings and the heavenly hosts watch in awe and wonder. It's easy to imagine it this way as you read the opening passages of Genesis. Each day builds momentum as the cast of creation makes its appearance.

First out of nothingness come the heaven and earth, then the explosion of light and the division of day and night. Once upon a time, there was no light. Then suddenly come billions of boiling stars and galaxies. The waters of the seas part and the Creator's imagination spins out majestic mountains and valleys, volcanos and rivers, deserts and icebergs, each one carved up by light and shadow. The song continues as life begins to teem and whir, grass takes root, and redwoods stretch heavenward. Kelp forests and grapevines sprawl and spin. Grasslands roll in rhythm with newborn tides.

Then come the animals. The dinosaurs. The dolphins. Lemmings and lightning bugs. Hummingbirds and wildebeests. There are themes like reptiles and bears, and variations upon each theme: polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, Asiatic bears, panda bears. Creation has an improvisatory flair, bursting with imaginative energy and glory.

As God sings the song of creation, the creation responds with its own exaltations. "The heavens declare the glory of God," as the psalmist says (Ps. 19:1). Creation's song can be heard in the crash of perfect, spiraling waves on the coast of South Africa and the explosion of lava on Hawaii. Its melody is as subtle as the whirring of bees and as gentle as a breeze across the black hills of South Dakota. The psalmist isn't merely being metaphorical; he's noticing that God has imbued creation with a song that can be heard by ears tuned to the work of the Creator.

The Trinity's song roars to a climax on the sixth day. Dust is gathered and sculpted into flesh and bone, and into the new-formed lungs of Adam God gives man his first breath. Adam's first exhale is an entirely new kind of "hallelujah," the response of the firstborn image bearer of God.

Here, the Bible shows us that God isn't the disinterested god of the deists, who imagine him drawing up the world on a drafting board, winding it up like a clock, and leaving it to spin alone. Nor was creation a cosmic accident or the product of warring gods who sought to outdo one another.

Instead, the universe is the work of immeasurable brilliance, crafted with love and grace, and inhabited by the presence of the Creator, whose Word made the world and whose world sings of his glory, from the smallest blade of grass to the aurora borealis. Creation was made out of the overflow of God's own effusive and loving being, a reflection of the way the persons of the Trinity live in harmony, love, and community with one another.

And we were invited to join him in his song.

Adam: Creation's Worship Leader

Adam and Eve were the crown of creation, blessed with an image and breath given straight from the Creator, and tasked with carrying on the creative work on a scale suited to their smallness: subduing the earth and ruling over it (Gen. 1:28). God placed them in a garden called Eden, and the call to subdue the earth was an invitation to expand the garden out into the world around them. Adam and Eve were king and queen in a world ruled and inhabited by God, who reigned as King over them all.

The garden itself was more than an agricultural project. It was a meeting place for God and man, where God "walked" among humanity (Gen. 3:8). It was the first temple, the first sacred space, set apart from creation for the intersection of heaven and earth. Adam was, in a sense, the priest over all of creation, appointed by God to oversee it, steward it, and represent it before him.

But Adam wasn't leading worship services or doing ritualistic things to earn God's approval. There was no need; each moment of his life was a pleasing offering to God. Theologian John Witvliet defines worship as "the celebrative response to what God has done, is doing, and promises to do." For Adam and Eve, all of life in Eden was an unbroken, loving response to God's work as their Creator, caretaker, and Lord. As they lived in harmony with him, it was as if they drew together all of creation's praise into a single and unified "hallelujah" and "amen." N. T. Wright summarizes this nicely when he says of creation, "We see a large, slowly developing story: of the good creator God making a wonderful world, and putting a Human in charge of it to rule it wisely and to gather up its grateful praise"

This is how the universe is meant to work. God, in Trinity, creates the world. It's not part of him, but he nonetheless fills it with his presence and paints it with a vast panorama of beauty and brilliance, commissioning humankind to rule over it, nurture it, and enjoy it in his presence. Worship as an activity that's somehow separate from the rest of life appears nonexistent and, frankly, unnecessary. In the seamless perfection of that virgin world, it is all worship — a constant reflection of God's love, glory, and brilliance.

When we think about the story of worship with this as our point of origin, we see that worship starts with God. It begins in the loving relationships of the Trinity, where the Father exalts the Son, the Son exalts the Father, and the Spirit celebrates them both. This is what Harold Best calls "continuous outpouring."

He cannot but give of himself, reveal himself, pour himself out. Even before he chooses to create, and before he chooses to reveal himself beyond himself, he eternally pours himself out to his triune Self in unending fellowship, ceaseless conversation and immeasurable love unto an infinity of the same.

Creation flows out of this glory-sharing outpouring, as the Three-in-One craft the universe together, imbuing it with beauty, mystery, and glory that is itself a reflection of the wonder and glory of God. Humanity is appointed the vanguard of creation, tasked with overseeing and subduing the earth, serving as priests of creation, and bearing God's image. Glory sharing flows between the members of the Trinity toward one another, and all of creation (including humanity) participates, responding to it and reflecting it through their perfect design and sinless life together. Humanity participates as glory bearers (Ps. 8:4–5) and glory beholders — living in wonder of our Creator and the glorious creation song that hums and buzzes around us.

All of this happens without a hint of ritual. There are no separated-out worship services; there is only the glorious and glorifying life lived with and unto God. If someone were to ask Adam, "When do you worship God?" he might reply, "When do we not!" Worship isn't something other, external, compartmentalized, or confined. It is life with God, lived unto God for his glory and our pleasure.

Forgetting the Creator

Everything changes dramatically in Genesis 3, when the serpent creeps into the garden: "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" (Gen. 3:1).

Eve speaks up, saying, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die'" (Gen. 3:2–3). Eve defends God's integrity. The serpent, wanting to make God out to be oppressive, says in effect, "Does God not let you eat anything?" Eve affirms that God, indeed, let's them eat, but with one restriction; God has told them not to eat of the tree of knowledge.

But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Gen. 3:4–7)

Up to this moment, nothing has ever been done apart from the life and love of God. Now, suddenly a whole new world opens up. The seed of that forbidden fruit will sprout deep in human hearts, spreading out roots and branches that will encompass the whole of humanity's future, blossoming into pride and envy, murder and deceit. Every crime, personal and corporate, private and public, grows out of this common root, from sex trafficking to genocide, adultery to petty theft. Life with God is rejected and life without God, embraced. The bite from that fruit is truly the kiss of death.

If worship is about "ascribing worth," then it's easy to see where worship goes wrong. Adam and Eve think what they'll gain from the fruit is of greater worth than what they have with God. They trust the serpent instead of God's promise. In Paul's words, they worship and serve created things — the serpent and themselves — rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).

In this new world apart from God, Adam and Eve are naked — their sinfulness is hopelessly exposed. They hurry to cover their shame with fig leaves, trying desperately to compensate for their new-felt vulnerability and exposure.

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate." Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." (Gen. 3:8–13)

Adam and Eve can't even properly take responsibility for what they've done. They cower in the trees until God calls them out. Adam blames Eve ("the woman whom you gave to be with me") and Eve blames the serpent ("the serpent deceived me").

The consequences are unavoidable, and God announces the curses that they've brought upon themselves: Adam will suffer and die, working ground that fights against him for the remainder of his days. Eve will suffer agony in childbirth and discord in marriage. The serpent in particular faces the ultimate curse, which for Adam and Eve is a promise: one of Eve's offspring will crush his head.

Then comes a subtle and remarkable verse: "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them" (Gen. 3:21). Here, something wholly remarkable happens. God seeks them out in their sin and shame, and then, as Harold Best once put it, he "goes hunting for them." Their sin demands death, but God spares them by shedding the blood of a proxy. An innocent creature is killed, and its flayed flesh is made into a covering for Adam and Eve, a sign of both the cost of their shame and the grace of their God, who spares their lives and takes another. It's the first of many foreshadowings of the cross in the Scriptures, a glimpse into the mysterious plan of God, written before the foundation of the world, to slay his Son in our place.


Excerpted from "Rhythms of Grace"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Mike Cosper.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Bob Kauflin 11

Preface 15

Acknowledgments 23

1 The Song of Eden 25

2 Worship in the Wilderness 35

3 The Song of Israel 43

4 The Song of Jesus 61

5 Worship One, Two, Three 73

6 Worship as Spiritual Formation 91

7 Worship and the Story of the Church 105

8 Liturgy and the Rhythms of Grace 117

9 Sing, Sing, Sing 151

10 The Pastoral Worship Leader 169

Appendix A Sample Service Orders 189

Appendix B Recommended Resources 204

Appendix C The Sound of (Modern) Music: Technical Challenges for Audio and Congregational Singing 207

Works Cited 213

General Index 217

Scripture Index 220

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“I have read and heard preached a ton on the reality that ‘all of life is worship.’ It is and I wouldn’t want to argue that point, but what about when the covenant people of God gather together? Are there not some ways God desires us to worship corporately that can differ from how we worship in ‘all of life’? Mike has served the church well with Rhythms of Grace. I was both convicted and compelled as I read it.”
—Matt Chandler, Lead Pastor, The Village Church, Dallas, Texas; President, Acts 29 Church Planting Network; author, The Mingling of Souls and The Explicit Gospel 

“Mike Cosper is uniquely gifted as both a musician and a pastor to speak into the culture where art and church meet and mesh. This is an important book for folks thinking about what it is to be a musician, a worship leader, and everything in between. The historic question of how we worship on Sunday and with our lives is an important one to keep asking because the songs we sing have the power to shape who we are and who we will become as individuals and as a community.”
—Sandra McCracken, singer-songwriter

“Years ago, A. W. Tozer remarked that worship was the missing jewel of the evangelical church. Since that time, evangelicals have been engaged in an urgent and sometimes feverish struggle to determine the nature of true biblical worship. In Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper takes us back to first principles and roots his understanding of worship deeply within the context of the Christian gospel. This is a book that will offer much to Christians and church leaders seeking to understand worship. It is both biblical and deeply practical, and it is written by an author who has deep experience in the worship life of a thriving and faithful congregation.”
—R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Mike’s Rhythms of Grace was like sitting across the table from someone you need to be listening to. In this season of the Church, there is some confusion on why and what a worship leader is and does. This book brings great clarity to that confusion. As someone who aims to see song leaders become worship leaders and worship leaders become worship pastors, I found this to be a key read. This will be an important piece in training new leaders, and a great reminder to more seasoned leaders, to sing the gospel and above all, highlight Jesus.”
—Charlie Hall, Worship and Liturgy Pastor, Frontline Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

“I know of no one more insightful on questions of worship than Mike Cosper, and I know of no one more gifted to articulate a Christ-focused, Kingdom-directed, Spirit-driven sense of what it means to worship in the presence of the triune God. Read this book and see if it does not drive you to re-pattern your worship to fit the full rejoicing, lamenting, raging force of the biblical adoration of the triune God.”
—Russell Moore, President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention

“When Mike Cosper writes, I read. And even though I'm not a pastor and don't play the guitar, I learned a lot from him about how the gospel of grace shapes our rhythms of congregational worship. Pick up this book and benefit from his biblical wisdom and pastoral experience.”
—Collin Hansen, Editorial Director, The Gospel Coalition; author, Blind Spots

“This book challenges worship leaders not merely to announce a gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, but to begin to discover how that gospel reshapes every dimension and element of worship. It invites readers into a world where theology and practice, belief and action are intimately intertwined—where every practice reflects and then reinforces a theological vision, and every doctrine both grounds and sharpens practices. Who better to offer this challenge and invitation than a reflective practitioner who considers it a joy to discern the implications of this gospel of grace for a host of practical concerns, week by week, year by year?”
—John D. Witvliet, Director, Professor, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary

“The story of the Gospel is one that must be emphasized again and again in worship. In Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper outlines the narrative of our hope, the order of our praise and importance of our worship to every gathering of believers.”
—Ed Stetzer, Executive Director, Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, Wheaton College

“I can’t overstate my excitement about Mike Cosper’s new book, Rhythms of Grace. This practical volume represents the many years my good friend has spent in serious theological reflection, doxological engagement, and faithful service in the Body of Christ—at Sojourn Church and well beyond. Mike’s passion for God’s glory and God’s worship are evidenced on every page. In particular, I’m thankful for how Mike helps us plan our services of worship in light of the history of redemption and the riches of God’s grace. Liturgy isn’t a four-letter word; it’s the storyboard, which helps us connect with God’s commitment to redeem people, places and things, through the person and work of Jesus. I will use Mike’s tremendous book in the seminary classes I teach on worship; but I will also place it in the hands of seasoned worship leaders and young congregants alike. Thanks dear brother, for your art and heart!”
—Scotty Ward Smith, Pastor Emeritus, Christ Community Church, Franklin, Tennessee; Teacher in Residence, West End Community Church, Nashville, Tennessee

“The greatest composers are gifted synthesizers. They have the ability to weave what they’ve heard and learned and experienced in the past into their own musical story. If Rhythms of Grace were a symphony, the critics would hail it as a masterful work of synthesis—a fusion of biblical, historical, cultural and philosophical elements into an engaging, challenging and thoughtful treatment of worship. At the end of this work, you’ll also be able to sing the primary thematic motive—the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
—Joseph Crider, Senior Associate Dean, School of Church Ministries, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“For the glory and enjoyment of God, the health of the church, and the spread of the gospel—this is why you should read Rhythms of Grace, by Mike Cosper. Inside this book Mike proves to be a good pastor giving us a practical theology of worship that cautions against and corrects error, while shepherding us toward a more biblically faithful understanding and experience of worship in the church gathered and scattered.”
—Joe Thorn, author, Experiencing the Trinity and The Heart of the Church; Lead Pastor, Redeemer Fellowship, St. Charles, Illinois

“An important contribution to the discussion among many younger evangelicals about worship and liturgy. Mike writes with grace, and a wisdom beyond his years. Frankly, I am amazed by the amount of ground he manages to cover! Mike introduces many to ideas and thinkers that all in the evangelical world should know. Mike has set a lofty goal, painting a picture of liturgy as a beautiful way, and I believe he succeeds. For anyone nervous about exploring the world of liturgy, Mike is a gentle and wise companion.”
—Kevin Twit, Campus Minister, RUF; Founder, Indelible Grace Music

“Mike Cosper has written a book that is both easily accessible and also deeply challenging for anyone who wants to see worship flourish in their congregation. Rhythms of Grace is a must-read—especially for church musicians and pastors who desire to deepen in their understanding of how worship shapes and forms individuals and communities.”
—Isaac Wardell, Founder, Bifrost Arts

“For many churches, having a well thought out approach to how to lead music is woefully lacking. This needs to change, and this book will surely help. Rhythms of Grace will be a book that I will rely on in the future to develop music leaders for our church and the churches we plant. Clear, beautifully written, theologically grounded yet very practically helpful, and completely gospel-centered—this is a book for pastors and music leaders alike. In fact, I would get two copies so that pastors and musicians can read it together!”
—Zach Nielson, Pastor, The Vine Church

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