Who is worship for, anyway? The common answer to that question from evangelicals, and even from many of the Reformed, is “Worship is for God, of course!”
Closely related to this view of worship is the oft-stated assertion that “We don’t come to worship for what we can get out of it; instead, we come to give to God our ‘sacrifice of praise’!”
In other words, worship isn’t designed to benefit man, but to benefit God. As I’ve heard it said in various ways, “We don’t come to church for what we can get out of it; instead we come to church to give God our worship.” The “service” in “worship service” is man serving God, not God serving man.
Such a view of worship, as common and pious-sounding as it may be, is utterly unbiblical, and even (when taken to its logical extreme) contrary to a Reformed understanding of worship.
Before I explain what I mean and make my case, let me make a few clarifications, lest the reader misunderstand me.
First of all, let the reader understand that I do indeed recognize and confess, along with our Shorter Catechism, that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” As the Scriptures teach, we were created and exist for God’s glory. God is not a cosmic bellhop who exists to cater to our every wish and whim. Rather, we exist for His good pleasure.
Let the reader also understand that I wholeheartedly affirm that we believers ought to approach worship with the desire and intention to glorify God in our worship, and with an attitude of reverence and awe. Our goal in worship ought to be to see Christ magnified and God glorified in the assembly of His saints. In this sense worship must indeed be God-centered, not man-centered.
At the same time, my basic point in this article is this: God is most glorified when His people are most edified.
In other words, worship is ultimately designed for man’s benefit, not God’s. In biblical, God-centered, Reformed worship, the direction and flow of worship is from God to man, not (as is common in evangelical worship) from man to God. In worship our Triune, covenant God graciously takes the initiative and condescends to serve, feed and edify His covenant people through His means of grace (the primary means being the Word and the sacraments) and by His Spirit, and His people respond to this Divine initiative with their prayers and praises and offerings. All of this magnifies God’s glorious grace, and thus glorifies God.
“But is this view of worship biblical?”
You bet it is!
First of all, the true and living God, the God revealed in the Bible, is perfectly self-sufficient in and of Himself. He is the great I AM, the Ever Blessed God who is perfectly self-sufficient and perfectly content within His own Triune Being. He is already infinitely and unchangeably glorious in and of Himself, which means that He stands in need of nothing from His creatures, including their worship. When we speak about “glorifying God” in our worship, this does not mean that we somehow add to God’s glory through our worship, for God is already infinitely glorious, and you cannot “add” to infinite, boundless glory! While God is pleased to accept the heart-felt worship of His people, He doesn’t “need” our worship. Our worship is not designed to somehow give God an “ego-boost” – as if the Creator of the universe had a low self-esteem and needed our affirmation in worship to feel good about Himself. Rather, our worship “glorifies” God in the sense that it declares, manifests and publicly displays His glory through those elements of worship which He has prescribed for His holy worship. (And as God’s glory is declared, manifested and displayed in worship, God’s people are edified in their faith!)
In the Bible-based words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, found at the beginning of chapter 2, section 2: “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them.” (Emphasis added.)
In other words, while God delights in the worship of His people, He does not “need” our worship. Therefore, our worship is not ultimately for His benefit, but for ours.
Another biblical evidence for the view of worship that I am presenting here is found in the biblical emphasis on worship being for the believer’s edification and for the building up of their faith. For example, in responding to the liturgical chaos and “charismania” exhibited in the Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul urged the Corinthian believers to strive toward a more orderly worship practice (“But all things should be done decently and in order” – 1 Cor. 14:40, ESV). Why? So that the church might be built up and edified! “Let all things be done for building up.” (First Corinthians 14:26, ESV) Clearly, God’s primary goal in commanding His people to worship Him is that they might be edified and built up in Christ! Again, God is most glorified when His people are most edified.
In holy worship our covenant God comes to us to commune with us and to feed our souls in Word and sacrament, and we respond with gratitude to His gracious initiative with our prayers, our praises, and our financial gifts. This “dialogical principle” with its interplay of Divine initiative and human response is reflected in the “flow” of historic Reformed liturgical practice, such as we practice at Lake OPC.
For example, in our worship service God comes to us in grace and blessing through the apostolic salutation, and He calls us into His presence through the call to worship. We respond with an opening hymn and a prayer of praise. We then reaffirm our trust in the Lord through the recitation of one of the historic creeds of the church (usually the Nicene or Apostles’). God’s presence confronts us with our sin, so we confess our sins, and then we hear God’s gracious word of forgiveness in a human voice through the mouthpiece of His ordained servant, the minister, who declares our sins to be forgiven for Christ’s sake. God then continues to build us up by His Word through the Scripture readings. We then respond to the reading of His Word with our hymn of faith, our prayers of intercession, our offerings, and our hymn of preparation for the sermon. God then continues to feed our souls through the proclamation of His Word, the sermon, which is the highlight and center of our service, and once again we respond with our hymn of commitment. (On Lord’s Days when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper God seals His word of grace proclaimed with the holy supper, which is the word of grace signified and sealed.) Finally, God sends us forth into the world with His blessing through the benediction. Thus a reformed worship service begins with God’s word of grace and blessing, ends with His word of grace and blessing, and is saturated throughout with His Word (read and preached), all to the edification and building up of God’s people!
In Divine worship God kills our pride and self-righteousness through His Law, raises us up and forgives our sins through His Gospel, and builds us up in our most holy faith, equipping us to go forth into the world to serve Christ in our daily callings. In other words, worship is primarily for the benefit of His people!
“But doesn’t this make worship man-centered rather than God-centered?”
Not when we understand the truth that in worship we don’t ascend to God through our prayers and praises (as an evangelical theology of glory implies), but rather God comes to us in grace through Christ (as reflected in a theology of the cross). Not when we understand that God is most glorified when His people are most edified!
For a helpful podcast related to this subject I would encourage the interested reader to listen to a recent “Issues Etc.” radio show podcast featuring the conservative Lutheran pastor Rev. Chris Rosebrough who speaks on the topic of “The Liturgy of Pop-American Christianity”. Pastor Rosebrough hosts a program called “Fighting for the Faith” where he addresses heresies and trends within Pentecostalism, revivalism and broader evangelicalism, and is a regular guest on the confessional Lutheran “Issues Etc.” program. As a biblically Reformed and Presbyterian Christian I would not necessarily endorse or agree with everything that Pastor Rosebrough says, as we differ with our Lutheran brethren on some significant points of doctrine and practice. But, nonetheless, his perspective on worship is very thought-provoking and helpful.
You can listen to the podcast here: http://issuesetc.org/2017/05/29/1532-the-liturgy-of-pop-american-christianity-pr-chris-rosebrough-6217/