Article of the Month
by R.B. Kuiper
The worship which the Christian church offers to God is sublime in its essence. Inasmuch as its quality is of necessity determined by its essence, that worship is sublime also in its quality.
What follows is a brief description of a few of the exalted characteristics of corporate worship.
It Is Humble
On the occasion of corporate worship God meets with His people, and they find themselves in the presence of “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy” (Isaiah 57:15). As creatures the deepest humility becomes them. And as sinners it behooves each of them to cry out: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).
The worshipers should know that they have no right to draw nigh to God but through the Mediator Jesus Christ. Did not He Himself declare majestically: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6)? He that assays to come to God in his own right can only find Him to be a consuming fire.
The worshipers should realize that apart from the qualifying grace of Christ they are utterly unable to worship God aright. Did not their Lord tell them that, as the branch cannot bear fruit except it abide in the vine, so they are completely dependent on Him for the bearing of fruit? “Apart from me,” said He, “ye can do nothing” (John 15:4, 5, ASV). That applies also to worship.
The worshipers should be conscious of it that even with the enabling grace of Christ they cannot render to God that worship of which He is worthy. Not only does their noblest worship fall far short of glorifying God as He ought to be glorified, it is also marred by sins of commission. So much sin cleaves to the best works of God’s children that their very righteousnesses are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). When that truth is related to corporate worship, it can only mean that such worship is ever in need of being purified and perfected by the sacrifice and the intercession of the great High Priest Jesus Christ.
It Is United
Whenever a congregation is worshiping, it does this, not as an aggregate of individuals, but as a body. Those present sing the same songs, pray the same prayers, attend to the same Word, contribute to the same offering, receive the same benediction. And they perform all those activities under the control of one Spirit. To be sure, there may be in attendance some who participate only in appearance, not in reality. But those aside, the church engages in public worship unitedly.
Nor is that all. The particular churches of a denomination usually have similar, if not identical, modes of worship. The content of worship, too, in any one of them ordinarily resembles closely that in every other. Therefore in a real sense the churches of a denomination worship together. Although the time for worship differs in various longitudes, nevertheless all the particular churches of a denomination, whether they be located in Connecticut, Colorado, or California, worship unitedly.
Even that is but one aspect of the matter. God’s people are scattered throughout many denominations. And all truly Christian churches the world over worship the only true God with more or less fidelity to the demands for worship contained in His Word. That is a way of saying that the church universal worships unitedly. For instance, the church in America, Australia and Argentina, employing the words of the Apostles’ Creed, makes confession of its common faith in unison.
The whole truth has not yet been told. The church of all ages worships unitedly. The church of the twentieth century joins the church of past centuries in praying the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples. And the church of the new dispensation joins the church of the old in singing the Psalms of Holy Writ.
To cap the climax, the worshiping church may be said to have come “unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels . . . and the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22, 23). It worships in’the company of angels and the church triumphant.
It Is Spiritual
To the query of the Samaritan woman which was the proper place for public worship: Mount Zion, the holy place of the Jews, or Mount Gerizim, the holy place of the Samaritans, Jesus replied: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23, 24, RSV).
The phrase in spirit does not refer primarily to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, but to the spirit of the worshiper. Paul used a similar expression when he said: “God is my witness, whom I serve wit! my spirit” (Romans 1:9). Yet only he will truly worship God in his spirit whose spirit is controlled by the Holy Spirit.
The phrase in truth may possibly contrast New Testament worship with the ceremonialism of the old dispensation. More likely it means in harmony with the truth that God is spirit. In that case in truth is synonymous with in spirit.
In effect Jesus said: “Since God is spirit, worship of Him must be spiritual, and only spiritual worship is true worship.”
It cannot be that the Lord meant to condemn all forms in public worship. How the church in glory worships we cannot say in detail, but certain it is that so long as the church finds itself in this world of time and space it cannot get along without certain forms in worship. The Lord Jesus Himself prescribed such a form as the commemoration of His death in the holy supper. However, all formalism in the worship of God stands condemned. Going through the forms of worship in routine fashion is not worship at all. In the sight of God it is an abomination. Our Lord denounced it scathingly in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8).
Spiritual worship, on the contrary, glorifies God greatly, for it recognizes Him for what He truly is. Nothing that man can do glorifies God more directly and immediately. And such is the worship of the true church of Christ.
It Is Free
Closely related to the spiritual quality of corporate worship is its quality of freedom. The more spiritual it is, the more it will excel in spontaneity.
Like all true liberty, freedom in worship is freedom under law. However, it is of utmost importance to distinguish at this point between the law of God and the laws of men. The law of God is “the law of liberty” (James 1:25, 2:12). God gave it to man, not to restrict his liberty, but that he might enjoy liberty to the full. Disobedience to God’s commandments is slavery, obedience to them is genuine liberty. Contrariwise, the laws of men, if they are not based upon the law of God, invariably tend to destroy liberty. Applied to corporate worship this means, on the one hand, that, in order to be free, it must be performed in strict accord with the prescriptions of God’s Word, and, on the other hand, that it ceases to be free in the measure in which it is controlled by human regulations and traditions. Never may a church presume to add to the divine precepts for worship. Nor are the Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic churches the only ones that have thus destroyed freedom in worship. Many Protestant churches, too, may well be reminded that “God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XX, Section II), and that it is their solemn duty as well as God-given privilege to “reject all human inventions, and all laws which men would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever” (Belgic Confession, Article XXXII).
If worship is to be free, it is no less necessary that the worshiper take the proper attitude to the law of God. He who keeps God’s commandments under external compulsion and contrary to his own desires is not keeping them at all. Only that is true obedience which is prompted by love. Only he worships God freely who delights in His worship after the inward man. And only he finds that delight in the worship of God who is controlled by God’s free Spirit.
That means that the Christian church is qualified to worship freely, for the Holy Spirit has been given to it. The Spirit operated already in the church of the old dispensation, but upon the church of the new He was poured out as never before. That accounts for it, on the one hand, that the New Testament contains far fewer detailed prescriptions for corporate worship than does the Old. But it also follows that upon the church of the new dispensation especially rests the obligation to worship God freely, spontaneously, lovingly. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Corinthians 3:17).
It Is Beautiful
Repeatedly Scripture enjoins God’s people to worship Him “in the beauty of holiness” (e.g., Psalm 29:2, 96:9).
The Old Testament sanctuaries and their furnishings, made after the pattern which Jehovah had showed Moses (Numbers 8:4), were beautiful. So were the garments of the priests, especially those of the high priest. In the new dispensation, too, it is well that the place of worship and its appurtenances be beautiful. However, in public worship there is no room for art for art’s sake, and ornamentation that distracts from the worship of God must be banned. What is beautiful elsewhere may be out of place, and therefore unbecoming, in the house of God. For instance, portraits of Washington and Lincoln are appropriate for a school, but not for a church. And one might well wish that he had the original, or even a copy, of Rembrandt’s Night Watch in his living room, but that masterpiece would disgrace a place of worship. Never may a sense of aesthetic satisfaction derived from the stately rhythm of the choral with lofty organ accompaniment or from dim light filtering in through windows of stained glass be mistaken for the spirit of worship. Not all ornamentation and symbolism need be excluded, for God Himself commanded Moses to adorn the tabernacle with pomegranates and to fashion cherubim for the holiest place of all. Yet whatever tends to image worship and thus to transgression of the second commandment of the moral law must be excluded from the house of God. This means that there is no room for any creature as a representation of the Creator and hence, as an object of worship. The place of worship is beautiful if it excels in simple dignity and dignified simplicity.
However, in this dispensation the place of public worship is relatively unimportant. The church has worshiped acceptably in catacombs and log cabins. What is of supreme importance is that public worship itself be beautiful. And it is beautiful when it is in harmony with Holy Scripture.
Corporate worship is beautiful if its content is Scriptural and if, as to form, every part is performed “decently and in order” (I Corinthians 14:40); if it is characterized by reverence and holy fear on the one hand and by joyful spontaneity on the other; if it issues forth from regenerate hearts aflame with gratitude for all that God is and does for His people, particularly for the full and free salvation which He has provided in His Son; if in it God’s children humbly, yet boldly, draw nigh to the throne of grace; if it is the holy communion of a holy priesthood with the thrice holy God. In short, beauty in worship is the reflection of holiness.
It Is Festive
Corporate worship should be a festive occasion. The Psalmist exhorted God’s people: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations” (Psalm 100:4,5).
To be sure, in every service of public worship confession of sins must needs be made. But from their sins God’s children must look up to the Saviour. Introspection must result in contemplation of the Christ crucified. And every song begun on a note of self-abhorrence may well end in a burst of gratitude to God for His great salvation.
There is room for special services of confession and humiliation. In times of war and other calamities such services are highly proper. Yet even then the note of joy may not be absent. In fact, it must be prominent. The church may exult: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. There is a river the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early. The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:1-7).
What greater joy have God’s people than that afforded by communion with God? They sing: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42:1, 2). God Himself is their highest joy. Therefore they pray: “O send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me; let them bring me unto thy holy hill and to thy tabernacles. Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:3,4). Communion with God is what makes heaven heaven. In corporate worship the church of God has a foretaste of heavenly bliss. It begins to understand what it is to glorify God as He would be glorified and to enjoy Him to the full and forever.
R.B. Kuiper (1886-1966) taught theology at Westminster Theological Seminary for twenty years, served Calvin Theological Seminary as president for several years, and pastored churches for seventeen. He was the author of nine books and innumerable articles. This particular article is taken from his book, The Glorious Body of Christ, pp. 353-360, (Banner of Truth (1967).
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