Public Worship is a Sacred and Solemn Assembly

Preface

A friend of mine and I were talking about a church he is reluctantly attending. It’s the same old story. He was a member of the only Reformed church in the area in which he lives. This church was once vibrant but has since declined due to prolonged ministerial neglect and misconduct on the part of the minister and the people. It is something that is rampant in this area as well as throughout America today. After enough time had elapsed in this condition some of the more spiritually minded folk tried to do something about this, all to no avail. And of course, there was the usual fiasco that attends such a situation as this, when someone tries to wake the spiritually sleeping from their slumber.

Next, you can add to the mix a short circuiting of accountability by the aforesaid non performing minister, aided by those blind but faithful followers of men who are always ready to go right over the cliff with them. There were attempts made by many within the congregation over time to rectify the situation but all were done in vain, so the result was another church wrecked in America and the name of the Lord blasphemed by it. The incredible shame of this is that this is a confessional Reformed church. Nevertheless, even a biblically sound church is not immune from such an occurrence because everyone in it is a sinner.

So now here is my friend, forced to search for another church in an area that is unusually dead spiritually. This is where the conversation started with my friend. This friend relayed his horror to me at what he witnessed in the worship service of the church he has been frequenting of late, since he left the other unacceptable situation. What this friend reported to me about the worship service, was that it was essentially man centered, devoid of any proper reverence for God. This is a situation that has become all to common in our land. Whether it is a biblical church in decline over misbehavior or a mainstream evangelical church that promotes worldly man centered Christianity, both of these have one thing in common, spiritual apostasy. I intend to write and post a great deal of commentary in the near future concerning the issues surrounding this and other Reformed churches I know of, that is essentially in the same condition. I want to speak for now about what my friend has encountered in the church he has been visiting, I hope not too much longer.[1]

The following outline reflects the thoughts which struck me from what I heard in reference to the Evangelical church in question. What is especially disturbing about it is that the Pastor claims to be Reformed and believe in the doctrines of grace. Yet, when my friend confronted this Pastor about some less than God honoring behavior he witnessed, the response from this man was nothing less than astounding. The disturbing nature of this response was more in the form of an attitude of indifference which the Pastor exhibited. This man merely shluffed off the matters brought to his attention as irrelevant to the New Covenant church, this he did rather than offer any defense of his position from Scripture. In other words, to this man what we do and how we do it in worship according to this logic is something entirely up to us and our opinion. It is a matter of pragmatism, comfort and convenience more than anything. If this man is right, then those of us who think differently do so on false ground, for one opinion is as good as another.

And when you add to it that this comes from a man who has been properly chosen and called in the ministry of the church, it then becomes only his opinion that counts. I for one, reject such a notion outright as not only unbiblical, but downright offensive to God. I found the attitude of this church and its minister to be personally disturbing to me. I say this because when I read Scripture I find in it a God who is Holy, and that demands His worship be reverent and ordered according to His will. Therefore, I wish to address here three particular things mentioned to me about the situation that I find especially troubling. My interest in this has mostly to do with the attitude people have when they come into a worship service. The same can be said about a minister who is more concerned about what makes him or the people happy, rather than God.

Introduction

Before getting to the three points of concern perhaps it would help to set the situation that I see as currently existing in America in its proper context. The particular issues of which we write have become widespread in our land today so that they are reflective of the society as a whole concerning the attitude and thinking of its people. One example of what we refer to is seen in the proliferation of Pentecostalism in our land as a movement since the end of World War Two. If we study this phenomenon in our present time, we have to consider it especially as it has manifested itself since the beginning of the seventies. Those of us who have been around since those days know this as the dawning of a new age, or, the age of Aquarius as it was called. Since those days, a whole new perspective on religion has arisen in the form of what may be called a new sort of spirituality. Gone is the day when Christian worship is regarded by most people as something sacred, something to be approached in a completely solemn manner.

To be more precise about this new spirituality, we might call it a pagan attitude concerning religion, especially its worship. Nowhere has this been more felt, more revealed than in the modern day Pentecostal movement. Today, Pentecostalism comprises a very large section of the organized, or depending on how you see it, disorganized church situation. Through Pentecostalism, we have been introduced to the modern church in all its glory, filled with all sorts of aberrant, out of control and rankly unbiblical behavior in its so-called worship service. The phrase “swinging from the chandelier” is not too far off track when referring to what goes on in many of these churches. In saying this we are well aware that there are also many of these churches that are much more conservative than others in the way they conduct themselves, but these are exceptions to the rule rather than the norm.

In visiting the average Pentecostal church today one will most likely encounter what appears to be more like a rave. A rave for the unenlightened, is a public entertainment gathering where a large number of people cram into a poorly lit hall, and commence to dancing and letting themselves loose. They do this in conjunction with the music that fills the place. In other words, people letting it all hang out as they used to say in the day. A Pentecostal meeting is like this in that it is designed to accomplish pretty much the same thing, to wit, deliver an experience of altered mood and feeling that lifts the attendee out of his cares, and often his mind too, into the heights of personal ecstacy. To the many who attend such places as these, this is what worship is all about. These situations are characterized by excitement, exuberance, and a party atmosphere. When such things as this occur in one of these places, people are led to believe that God has entered in and they have partaken of His blessing through the emotional experience they receive from it. Since Pentecostalism also teaches that the speaking of tongues is the sign of the Holy Spirits presence, everyone in these meetings is blabbering nonsense out loud with their mouths in unison together. This they do while some semi professional entertainer, masquerading as a preacher sings and rants onstage to the crowd. A chorus of singers swaying below a wide screen adorns the worship celebration.

But frivolous and unbiblical behavior in worship need not be entirely of the sort we have just described to be classified as such. In many, if not most conservative Evangelical churches today there are another type of frivolous, man centered, unbiblical worship that is practiced too. The mainstream Evangelical church is what make up most of the religion today in America that calls itself Christian. Among these mainstream churches one can find a wide array of things in the worship. Since the eighties we have been enlightened to the phenomenon known as the mega church movement which finds expression in both Pentecostal and non Pentecostal church settings. There is in the mainstream Evangelical church today many of the elements common to the Pentecostals too, such as contemporary music led by a rock band. But all in all, the Evangelical, mega church experience is much more focused on a larger number of factors which the worship experience takes into account. This may involve drama, orchestral productions, special music productions, well-known personalities as speakers and a whole host of other things designed to draw the crowds in. The special music events, whether performed by a single person or a choir, are usually followed by the clapping of hands by the congregation. Electric guitars and drums that accompany such affairs tend to give them more of a concert atmosphere than anything. Short homiletical sermons tend to take second place to this much more substantive part of the worship experience, which characterize most Evangelical churches today.

There are however, a smaller number of Evangelical churches around that cannot be classified as mega, or, necessarily as seeker sensitive as the terminology goes, who nevertheless exhibit less than biblical behavior in their attitudes of worship. These churches are more conservative than most of the more mainstream ones. Some of these churches may even have in them preaching that is far more solid than the average Evangelical church does, focusing on legitimate doctrinal themes. But alas, unless a church has as its foundation a proper biblical, and we might add, a confessional stance in matters of worship, it is nevertheless, no better in the eyes of Scripture and ultimately of God, than the most egregious Pentecostal travesty extant in our society today.

How do we assert such an audacious position as this, where does it come from? It is from the written word of God, the only source of faith and authority for practice in the Christian church. Apart from Scripture, there is no Christian faith or practice, indeed there is no such thing as true religion at all where it is set aside for popular opinion. The situation becomes acute when it is considered that God hates anything that does not conform to His will as it is revealed in His word. “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6). Jesus Christ is the Truth of God incarnate, how then can anyone say they are a Christian who disregards the Bible in their faith and practice? “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32). Here, we are told by Jesus that knowledge of the truth, ie., His word, is a liberating principle that His people possess. What does this say of those who leave this book closed in order to push their own agenda in His church that He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28-30)? Scripture dictates the will of God for His people in the church. The apostle Paul spoke to Timothy in this way about these very things, for he did not want to arrive at his church one Sabbath day and find anything going on it that did not coincide with Gods will. “These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Tim. 3:15). Note here Paul’s assertion that the church is God’s house. As such, the church is subject to God’s will at all times and in all things, there is no place for optional service. There is no place for men doing what is right in their own eyes in God’s sacred assembly as though there were no king to be found in it (Jud. 17:6).

And so it is with these thoughts in mind that we turn our attention to consider three particular issues of great concern in the modern day church concerning worship. In order to introduce the points to be made in this brief essay, it would be advantageous to read a text from the Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel, chapter eight. This chapter gives us a bird’s eye view of what was taking place in the Temple at that time in regard to worship, and what God thought of it. Of course, the administration of God’s worship in the Old Testament features many things that are different from that now done in the New Testament church. The worship of God then was elaborate, ritualistic and typical as compared to what is now ordained for us in the present dispensation. But the essence of that worship is no different even if the circumstances are. This is due to the fact that God is immutable, He does not change (Mal. 3:6), nor does the sacredness or solemnity of His worship.

I. Frivolity in the worship service

The first thing to consider about worship is that it is ordained of God as something man should do, for worship is not any sort of invention of his own. To go even farther with this thought, we need only consider what is said by King Solomon to this very effect in the book of Ecclesiastes. As he finished reflecting upon the vanity of this present life, at the end of the book Solomon brings it to a close with this observation concerning man:

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil.” (Ecc. 12:13,14).

In other words, Solomon says that worship is the main concern of life for man. It is both his duty and pleasure to do this, for everything else that he may encounter in life is but fleeting. And underscoring the conclusion Solomon makes of these two things stated in verse 13, he adds the eternal nature of them in verse 14. Man’s devotion to God, or, the lack thereof, will be the subject of judgement some day that will bring for him consequences of an eternal nature. That’s what the meaning of life is, it is to worship God and enjoy Him. Worship is what God requires of man, and nothing else but worship is able to satisfy mans inner pursuit of meaning for existence.

In order to provide a framework for man to exercise this duty toward God, He has ordained public worship as an institution which is to be performed at regular intervals of time. Once a week public worship should take place anywhere an assembly of saints coexists together as a church. And it is to coincide with the one day in seven God blessed and sanctified for this very purpose (Gen. 2:3). It is within this context of public worship that a specific mark has been established by God that qualifies an assembly of Christian people, or, a church as His.

Of course worship is something which should be done at all times on a personal level. But public worship is the context of a particular sort of worship that God reveals in His word. Public worship is a time in which “the whole church comes together in one place,” God is there to meet with His people (I Cor. 14:23-25). The Old Testament refers to public worship “as a sacred assembly” (Lev. 23:36; Num. 29:35; Deut. 16:8; II Chron. 7:9; Neh. 8:18; Joel 1:14, 2:15). There are two things that make public worship sacred, the Lords’ appointment of it and His presence there. Jesus told His disciples that only a few of them need to gather together in His name in order for Him to be present (Matt. 18:20). This is of course, public worship He was speaking of, though it is not imagined that He is absent when the saints gather together more informally. The point is that the meeting is sanctified by the presence of the Lord through the invocation of His name. This is what make it a sacred assembly.

Because the assembly of the saints in the presence of the Lord is sacred, it must be considered a most serious and solemn occasion. Nothing should be done at such a time as this that is careless, unthinking and frivolous. For this reason, attitude is of the utmost importance. Oftentimes, those who criticize order and solemnity in the sacred assembly do so by claiming that worship should be a time of joy. Indeed it should be, for what could be more joyful than a time to delight ourselves in God through our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? And what could possibly be more joyous than to have the privilege to assemble publicly in His name, because of what He has done, to worship Him? But often what these people, those who criticize order and solemnity in worship mean, are riotous abandon. To them, a worship service should be a party, with raucous levity and spontaneity. By this is meant there should be an atmosphere of informality in the room. The pastor should address the people like he would at the dinner table, or at a pool party, throwing one liner’s out to stimulate the crowd.

Spontaneity is said to be the spice of life, and so it is no wonder that many today find no joy in attending a meeting in which they know what will take place in it beforehand. Instead, the novelty of the unexpected is to some an evidence of God’s Spirit working among them. Excitement, mood, and movement must be present in order to give the participant the sense of having a fulfilling worship experience when they come to the meeting. In fact, spirituality in the modern Evangelical sense is entirely experiential. Everyone must “feel” the Holy Spirit among them. So how does this spiritual feeling come about? Usually, it is done through psychological manipulation, accomplished by the circumstance and pomp of the meeting. Positive feeling is the object, so everything done in the meeting is patterned around that which will produce the most positive of “experiences” to the worshiper. Lightheartedness, even giddiness on the part of the minister is guaranteed to produce such a feeling.

On the opposite side of things, solemnity in worship is viewed in modern Evangelicalism as stolid, heartless, cold, and unloving. The idea that being in the presence of God should be humbling, awe inspiring and fearful, does not strike the modern day Christian as rising to the level of a pleasant experience. Certainly, preaching focused on sin as the antithesis to grace, is not what the frivolous mind of the churchgoer today is interested in hearing. So a worship service has become in the minds of most people in modern Evangelicalism, a time of celebration. The gospel of Jesus Christ is something we celebrate. We do this by singing, chanting, and waving hands in the air in a most upbeat manner.

Use of the word celebration is popular today in the Christian church to describe the public service. Celebrate is an interesting English word. We read the word to celebrate in our English Bible, used in conjunction with the Sabbath service, stated like this in the Pentateuch:

“It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.” (Lev. 23:32).

The word to celebrate here in the English is translated from the Hebrew word shabath, which means to keep. To keep what we ask, to keep the next word which is shabbath, or the Sabbath day observance of worship. These two words in verse 23, afflict and celebrate, would appear by today’s standard to be completely opposite of each other. Nothing could be farther from the truth however, for the biblical meaning of the word celebrate as we have it translated here, is that of solemnity, reverence and humility. To afflict ones soul is to manifest an attitude of repentance. Though the people of God are privileged, blessed to be saved and invited to attend a public gathering before the Lord, still, they are lowly creatures of the dust, sinners by nature though redeemed nonetheless.

The object of a worship service is to reverence the glory of the Lord. In hearing the word preached, God in Christ is manifest through those attributes of His displayed at the cross. We ask, what could be more joyful than “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Pet. 1:18,19)? God incarnate became the righteousness of His people. Christ became a substitutionary sacrifice for us that we might be made righteous (II Cor. 5:21).

Consider for a moment the people of Israel who were gathered for their first official public worship service (Lev. 9:1ff). When the people beheld the glory of the Lord, as He consumed the sacrifice before them, they shouted praise and bowed their faces in profound fear (Lev. 9:23,24). There was no casual attitude to found among these people at this particular moment. There was no frivolity or laughter, whooping or hollering, dancing or any other sort of party like behavior going on at this service.

Perhaps someone might say that this was a situation quite different from our own. For whom would not be overwhelmed at such a terrible sight as this, what with fire consuming a bloody sacrifice? We respond, do you think o’ man, there is any difference between the glory of God’s Holy fire shown before the eyes, and the glory of His Holy word communicated by the mouth of His servant? The circumstances of worship may have changed, but not the God we worship.

What is betrayed in such a notion as this, namely, that worship is supposed to be a sort of religious party, is an attitude of disrespect for God. Away with such an attitude as this! If proper reverence for God has been removed from our midst, is it any wonder our churches are found to be empty if we do not present a three-ring circus in them on Sunday to draw a crowd?

a. God is Jealous

God abhors disrespect. This is something which should be obvious to even the casual reader of the Bible. The whole point of worship from a purely academic perspective is to show respect toward an object of ones love and devotion. For a Christian that object is and must be the God of the Bible, for He alone is worthy of the respect of His creatures. Why is this so, why is God to be worshiped? The English word worship is a compound made up of two root concepts: worth, or, worthiness, and ship, or, fitness. Put together, the idea of worth-ship becomes worship, so that the answer to the question is that God is worthy of worship.

God is worthy to be worshiped by virtue of the fact that He is the Creator of all things. Not only is God the Creator, but He is the Sustainer of the things He has created. This speaks of His unlimited power over the creation. As creatures, we are utterly dependant upon God for life, health, and all things. In light of this truth, another obvious question may be asked, what sort of creature is it that takes and receives good things from the Creator, and is not respectful toward Him? Only a fool does this, but there is a particular reason why it is so, it is nothing but unbelief (Ps. 14:1). The fool who takes from God and does not respect Him is an atheist. We have a foolish notion in the church today that believes atheism is confined to the irreligious, to those who do not attend a place of worship. But those who think like this fail to understand that anyone who does not respect God, regardless of whether they attend a church or not are atheists. These are those whose view of God is like unto them (Ps. 50:16-23; Rom. 16:18; Phil. 3:19).

God is jealous of the respect of His creature, because of His fitness to command the respect of them toward Himself. God alone is holy, righteous, and good. God is holy because He is unlike anyone or anything created; God is righteous in all His ways and dealings with them; God is good to His creation which He made and preserves. So God is jealous that His creature love and respect Him for who He is. Therefore, God will not tolerate any disrespect in His sacred assembly. This is why there is an injunction against idolatry placed in His moral law (Ex. 20:2-5). Notice should be taken that this law was given the covenant people too, not the heathen outside of the ancient church. The same law is reiterated to the church in the New Testament by way of particular application (James 4:1-6). False behavior in the church is the result of disrespect toward God and His law, coupled with a love for self and the world.

So God is not worshiped any old way. He defines what is acceptable to Him in His word, not us. Again, we see an example of this very point in Leviticus, immediately following the first offering made by Israel after the official establishment of their worship (Lev. 10:1-4). There are two things we can see in this tragic event that relates to our present theme. Observation 1. Nadab and Abihu performed that which was not commanded of them in their offering. Observation 2. Nadab and Abihu showed public disrespect toward God. Although God may not do the same thing today in a Christian worship service when such things as this are done by His people, God is still the same in what He thinks of it (Mal. 3:6). No, the judgement of God upon His church for the same sort of sin is done through His adverse providences (I Cor. 11:27-34).

b. God sees what is done in His name

When Christians meet together for public worship, they do so in the name of the Lord. This has customarily been referred to as an invocation. An English word like this is currently out of vogue however, due to the fact that it does not conform to MTV, sports or texting jargon. That being said, our modern, or, should we say post modern society is accustomed to practicing the meaning of this word frequently in public and private settings. It will probably be asked, why would we say such a thing as that? Before answering it however, let us first consider what the word to invoke means. The word to invoke is defined by Webster’s Dictionary[2] as “To call on for aid or protection; to invite earnestly or solemnly; to summon; to address in prayer; to solicit or demand by invocation; to implore; as, to invoke the Supreme Being, or to invoke His blessing.” Simply put, it is using the name of God, His Son, and the Holy Spirit as an invocation.

Use of the name(s) of God today in society is not done however, in the manner just described above from Webster’s Dictionary, but rather, as a vain figure of speech, or, in other words, as a vain oath. Public discourse today has become so permeated by this, that many will come into a church worship service with the lowest of possible attitudes toward the name of the Lord. The Lord’s name has become so utilitarian in the minds of many, they will use it without thinking when they are angry, happy, or just simply want something as is the case in most mainstream Evangelical worship meetings. This accounts we think, for the lack of respect, the lack of solemnity afforded God today in most churches when they come together in His name.

If God is jealous of anything, it is the honor of His name. This is why it is mentioned in the decalogue in conjunction with worship (Ex. 20:7). People often equate this prohibition against using the Lord’s name in vain with vain oaths, or, swearing, which it most certainly does. But few today are taught that the first table of the law is addressing worship in the sacred assembly of God’s people. Verses 2-4 of Exodus chapter twenty deal with idolatry in worship. Verses 8-11 deals with the sanctity of the day in which God commands His people to meet for public worship. So tucked neatly between these two sections in the first table of the law is found an assertion of the sanctity of the name of God in reference to the public assembly. So the primary intention of this prohibition against the vain use of God’s name is in reference to its use as an invocation in Public worship.

When a group of people meets together in a service and invokes the name of God, everything they do, whether it is outward in terms of ritual, or, whether it is inward in terms of attitude, falls under this rule set forth in God’s moral law. When people are disrespectful of this in a meeting, it is as though they forget that God is present, in they’re midst when His name is invoked (Matt. 18:20). Irreverence, jocularity, and mindless behavior in worship are a complete affront before a Holy God, and therefore, should never happen in a Christian church.

c. God is provoked to anger by irreverent, false worship

God sees what is done in His name, and is provoked to anger by it, if it is not done in respect to who He is by nature. There is an interesting, yet fearful account of provocation by the Lord’s people in worship, recorded for us in the Old Testament, which illustrates the very point made here. This is seen in a vision given to Ezekiel, in chapter eight of his book, of abominations done in the Temple (verses 1:1ff). In it we read the following words of Ezekiel “He stretched out the form of a hand, and took me by a lock of my hair; and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven, and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the door of the north gate of the inner court, where the seat of the image of jealousy was, which provokes to jealousy. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the vision that I saw in the plain.” (Verses 3,4). The purpose of God here was to give Ezekiel a glimpse of what took place in the Temple by the priests. There was something being done in God’s sanctuary that provoked His jealousy.

So Ezekiel is asked by God to look and see what is being done in the Temple. Ezekiel records what the Lord says to him saying “Then He said to me, “Son of man, lift your eyes now toward the north.” So I lifted my eyes toward the north, and there, north of the altar gate, was this image of jealousy in the entrance. Furthermore He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel commits here, to make Me go far away from My sanctuary? Now turn again, you will see greater abominations.” (Verses 5,6). The Lord wanted Ezekiel to see exactly what He saw going on in His Temple. In doing this, Ezekiel was brought to an understanding of what had happened to Israel. In seeing what God saw, he was made to understand why God destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians, and permitted His people to be carried away captive by them. God is provoked to anger by false worship in His sanctuary, the place where He chooses for His name to abide (Deut. 12:5).

Notice especially from this text what the Lord says about His anger, that is causes Him to go away from them. Do you understand this dear reader? The Lord removes His presence from His people when they desecrate His sanctuary by their misconduct. We do not want to press an example drawn from the Old Testament and its temple worship too far, but we think the point is clear. If the church today lacks discipline, spiritual vitality and moral authority it is because the Lord has withdrawn His presence and favor from it.

So what is at the root of the situation that has caused this to happen in our land where the Christian faith once flourished? It is due to an unholy attitude about grace that it is cheap and easily obtainable, this is the attitude that prevails in the church today. There is an antinomian spirit that dominates the church culture that views the purpose of the Christian faith and message to be one that is entirely man centered. Everything about it is what God has done for us, we do nothing in return to Him by way of strict obedience, at least, nothing we don’t want to do. After all, isn’t God said to be Love? And love is defined today as something that is focused on our happiness. It is “me” oriented, and experiential. Love has nothing to do with service, devotion or obedience in our present church culture, it’s all about self fulfillment. So people come into the church with a view of the church and its worship that it is there to serve them, rather, than they are there to serve God.

These folk fail to understand who God is, and what love is from Scripture. If we are “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,” we are looking at One who “endured the cross” and “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2). In other words, the love of God is about suffering, sacrifice, obedience, and Lordship. Love is not about feeling good about us, nor doing what pleases us. Love involves discipline within the family unit. If the Christian church is the family of God, then He as its Father expects a proper attitude and respect from them when they come near. Therefore, God is provoked to anger at His people when this is absent from from them. But it is so out of His love for them as a Father (Heb. 12:5-11). This is not to say that worshiping God should be a time of misery, any more than it should be that way within an earthly family gathering. In a proper family setting there should be order, structure, rules, respect, peace, contribution, and security under the headship of its father. Where children are disorderly, disrespectful of authority, and do what they please, no earthly father can be pleased with that. How much more is this so of “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17).

II. Man centered, irreverent praise

If one wants to assess the spiritual condition of the church today, one only has to consider the substance and manner in which God is worshiped in the weekly service, in the vast majority of congregations. This cannot be more true of the selection of music a church chooses, and of how it is presented in the worship service. Perhaps there is nothing more telling about the collective attitude of any given congregation than this. This is true because music is praise, and praise is that aspect of worship where God’s people offer themselves to Him in a very outward, expressive manner. But like anything that is offered to God, it must be what He expects, and it must be given properly.

All things are not the same when it comes to bringing an offering to God. For this we have the perfect example given, in the early stages of Bible history in the offering made by Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:3-7). To the ordinary mind, it would seem that either offering should have been adequate, for after all, each one brought what they had according to their own particular calling in life. Certainly, both things offered were sacrificial in nature, yet, God accepted only Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. So it is with music in worship, God will accept one thing, but not another.

Before going any further, we understand that praise music is a vast subject to consider, and one that cannot possibly be taken up in its entirety in a brief paper such as this. But there are a few things about it that must be said. One text in particular will suffice in introducing the subject of praise in the church. We find this in John’s gospel, chapter four where Jesus put forth the proposition in these terms to the woman at the well, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Verse 24). So this is the principle that guides what is acceptable to God in worship, that which is spiritual and true, rather than that which is fleshly and false. The reason for this is stated as well, because God is Spirit Himself, pure and unmixed, so that truth is a quality that pertains to His nature alone (John 1:1).

It has become popular in Christian circles today to separate these two elements of spirit and truth from each other. The idea is that if something is inherently spiritual, it therefore, cannot be doctrinal, for one pertains to the intellect and the other the heart. This is a major fallacy that has done immeasurable damage to the faith of God’s people. A simple study of Scripture will show the intellect and the affections are one and the same thing. We offer the reader here a short selection of texts to prove the point.

Genesis 6:5-Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

1 Chronicles 12:38-All these men of war, who could keep ranks, came to Hebron with a loyal heart, to make David king over all Israel; and all the rest of Israel were of one mind to make David king.

Esther 6:6-So Haman came in, and the king asked him, “What shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?” Now Haman thought in his heart, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?”

Job 38:36Who has put wisdom in the mind? Or who has given understanding to the heart?

Psalms 26:2Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; Try my mind and my heart.

Matthew 22:37Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

Luke 9:47And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a little child and set him by Him,

Acts 8:22Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:15but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ

Many more examples could be listed, therefore, a fuller examination into the number of times this pont shows up in Scripture is certainly recommended. The mind and heart are one and the same thing in Scripture. If there is any difference between them, it is only on emphasis. The mind can be said to involve the thoughts, and the heart the affections. But one thing is clear, they both proceed from one source within humanity, the spirit or soul, which is the spiritual aspect of mankind’s being.

The false separation of this unity has lead to a philosophy of faith and worship that sets experience over and against doctrine. This is reflected in the substance of the hymnody that permeates most of Evangelicalism’s praise music. Modern praise music is characterized this way, short on theological content, sung repetitiously, and done in an upbeat manner. This is guaranteed to produce a feeling or mood in the worship service that is usually mistaken for true spirituality. Of course, there is a wide array of ways in which this is done. Some churches are more conservative in their praise while others are more liberal. We bring this into the discussion because the vast majority of churches in our land use music which is inherently man centered, rather than God centered. And it hasn’t always been the case either, but is something that has crept into the church over a number of generations.

The nineteenth century introduced a type of hymn into the church that was sentimental in nature. It focused on the worshiper having a felt sense of fellowship with God. It viewed the object of salvation as something designed to make us whole, happy, and excited about life. There is so little said in such hymns about the real purpose of the cross, which is the glory of God in His grace in dealing with sin. In other words, this kind of hymn was introduced to replace an older type which focused on the Theology of the faith, whether it happened to be more on the objective side, or, more on the subjective side. Either way, the Protestant Reformation produced and handed down to the church a style of the hymn that was theological, poetic, and prayerful. This was unlike that which replaced it in the nineteenth century under the influences of liberalism.

Much of the Christianity that characterized the nineteenth century was pietistic and mystical in nature. It focused on us and our religious experiences. When the church divided between modernism and fundamentalism in the twentieth century, it was patterned after the notion that creedalism was somehow anathema to the Christian faith. So Christians rejected theology as something suspect, something contributory to the modernist shift away from fundamental belief in God and the Bible. But with this rejection of doctrine came a self focused, mystical view of the faith that turned theology into experience. A true measure of saving faith became defined by what a person testified to in public by way of heartfelt experience, rather than what they believed.

We do not argue that Christian experience is not something that may be felt at times, only that feeling and sensation do not by themselves, constitute spirituality. Nor does emotionalism in and of itself rise in any way to a level of spirituality which is acceptable to God as worship. The reason is that one could be excited about words and thoughts that are not true of God. What could possibly be more insulting to a Holy God than that? Scripture does not present God this way either, as we have already seen in the previous section. It is man centered to focus on our feelings rather than on whom God is in the music of our worship. It is an attitude that says God is like us, therefore, He will accept from us what pleases our fancy, our flesh, our feeling.

Eventually, even the man centered, sentimental hymns became obsolete, so that now, we simply chant phrases that are read on a large overhead screen to a raucous cacophony of noise produced by an electrified orchestra. Often it is a portion of Scripture which comprises this sort of praise. If it is, that is certainly commendable to some extent. But Christian faith is not a handful of phrases culled from the Bible. The gospel is a message based on a historical figure, concerning a historical event, with serious implications for the hearer. Rock style chanting is no doubt guaranteed to draw a crowd. It is also something pleasing to the unregenerate masses. But it has no place in a Christian church whatsoever.

God says this about worship He approves of, “For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ” I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” (Is. 57:15). Spiritual worship must be doctrinal and offered in a most solemn manner. Otherwise, it offends God. Anyone who knows God in His word knows this too. There is nothing more joyous and edifying than in entering the presence of God in the sacred assembly, with a mind full of Him, ready to offer spiritual sacrifices of praise (I Pet. 2:4,5). This can only happen if one offers himself to God first, before the service and before the scrutiny of the cross. This is true spirituality, not that which is evoked by some sort of carnal party atmosphere.

III. Thoughtless, irreverent communion

Lastly, it is necessary to say something about the character of the communion part of worship practiced in many Evangelical churches today. In this, we will be even briefer and more to the point than before. But say something we must, for this too, just like praise, reveals much about the attitude of those who meet together in a Christian church for worship.

In most churches today, communion has become nothing more than a tack on ritual to be performed on the appointed Sunday. As such, it is often approached in a most careless and thoughtless manner. It seems that many Protestants have forgotten that it was an idolatrous view of the sacrament, exercised in a mindless ritual by a Priest that the Reformation was all about. There was no preaching which properly taught the meaning of this ordinance from God. Only the undiscernable incantations in Latin of an unregenerate Priest surrounded this glorious sacrament given to us by the Lord on the night He was betrayed.

The Reformers (literally) threw the vestments and other external objects used by the Romanists to practice the Mass in the church, in a heap to be burned. They took the altar in which the Eucharist was placed and turned it into a lectern, usually set high above the pews in the sanctuary to preach from. The meaning of this was obvious, though the preaching of the Reformers left nothing to the imagination. It was simply this, the word of God is above the elements, indeed above all who are in attendance. The word of God is the central feature of Christian worship. Preaching not only brings the message of salvation, but it defines the ordinances of the church.

Today, it is common for a preacher to finish his message on just about anything but the meaning of the sacrament, and then proceed to offer it to the people. Usually, a portion of Scripture is read from I Corinthians’ eleven, or Matthew twenty six before or during the communion elements are passed out. If this is done, at least the hearers get some explanation of why it is to be done, though that by itself, given without comment does not explain theologically how we are to receive them. Today, the communion service is viewed as some sort of magical event either, or, simply as an empty display of some misunderstood event that took place in the Bible.

The danger to this is obvious, which is to produce by default, a mindless attitude in the people between one of the two positions mentioned above. Even the priests in the Old Testament were required to give the sense of the Scripture in their reading of it to the people (Neh. 8:8). This means they preached from the Bible what they understood about the meaning and application of the Mosaic ordinances to their hearers. At least, that was what they were supposed to do, according to the Lord Himself (John 3:9,10). At one time it was customary in the Protestant church to either preach a specially prepared message before the communion, or preach the entire worship sermon on it. What we mean is to preach on one of any number of texts or doctrines related to the gospel which properly prepared the hearers for the communion service.

Another way in which the Lord’s supper is often desecrated today, is in the careless handling of it in regard to those who partake of it. We do not wish to engage in any debate about closed or open communion here, which is a matter for another essay. What is at issue here is in allowing people who live openly profligate lives, or have no legitimate claim to Christian faith to partake of the Lord’s supper. We are obviously not talking about a visiting Christian, who may not be known to the church. We are talking about people who frequent the church, or, may be members in it in spite of their behavior or testimony. This is a grievous sin on the part of any church, one we do not hesitate to point out will result in providential judgements from the Lord on it. This too happens as a result of no doctrinal teaching in the church. But it also happens as a result of no proper church disciple too. Where there is no standard of doctrine or practice taught and expected by the ministry, there will be this sort of desecration taking place.

The Communion service is often looked at by people in churches as something to experience. For this reason, they do not come to it looking to give anything, only to receive. In reading the words the Lord spoke on the night He was betrayed, we read that the communion is to be taken in remembrance of Him (I Cor. 11:23-26). Therefore, since it is a memorial rather than an experience per se, it is all about Christ, not about us. The reason Jesus gives to come together and do this is to remember Him. This means that to properly do this, a worshiper must prepare themselves spiritually beforehand. Simply attending a worship meeting, as though it were a duty to observe, or worse, some sort of common event, is not proper preparation. Coming to the communion in humble acknowledgment that it was we who made Jesus suffer that ignominious death, this is the only proper frame of mind to have. Repentance from sin beforehand is a prerequisite for partaking of the Lord’s supper.

This is where the Evangelical church has utterly failed in many cases to honor the Lord. For there are many congregations in which scandalous bickering and fighting take place constantly, but everyone comes to the communion without a single pang of conscience before the Lord. Whenever there is a church dispute that festers to the point where people say and do things against each other, no one in it is fit to participate in the Lord’s supper. Furthermore, any church like this should not venture to do so without congregationally wide, public repentance. This is not to say that someone who is undergoing personal struggles with sin should be excluded. One reason the Lord commanded us to do this often was that it is a means of grace when properly practiced, to reclaim those who have fallen off the path. Nevertheless, repentance from known sin must precede the partaking of communion. Otherwise, as Paul said we drink and eat condemnation to ourselves (I Cor. 11:29).

So when God’s people come to the Lord’s table, properly instructed and personally prepared to remember Him, there is no possible way in which they will not find blessing from Him in it.

IV. Concluding remarks

And so we conclude this essay with this, a Christian worship service should be one in which biblical worship is offered to God, through Jesus Christ, with solemnity, joy, and humility. Failure to do this will result in the deplorable situation that exists today in the mainstream church. We know and admit that there are fine churches that exemplify the meaning of true worship. We rejoice over this and give God the glory wherever it is to be found. But we have nothing but sorrow for the many places in this land in which everything but, biblical worship is practiced.

Oftentimes, Christians lament the current situation by praying for and desiring that God would bring as Peter put it in his sermon, “times of refreshing” through revival (Acts 3:19). This should be the desire of all Christians who love the Lord and His church, “which is His body” (Eph. 1:23). But notice should be taken that the time in which Peter preached was also a time of reformation (Heb. 9:10). The Protestant Reformation resulted in the most remarkable revival that has taken place since the days of Penetcost. There is more to the issue of what ails the church today than just the lack of a great outpouring of the Spirit, which is most certainly needed. If we have been handed a heritage of biblical Christianity first, from the apostles, and second from the Reformers, and yet care not about reforming our attitudes, what do we expect from the Lord?

We have a Bible that tells us about God and what He expects from His people. God expects us to take heed unto every word in it for faith and practice, not just the parts we may like most to the exclusion of other parts. God even tells us what sort of attitude He expects and finds acceptable from His people. May we see reformation and revival in our land in every aspect of the church and its worship. Amen.

Notes:

[1] I started this essay last fall, but was sidetracked by other projects. Since then, my friend has left not only this church, but the next one he attended for a while that wasn’t any better. I’m happy to report he is now involved in a new Reformed church plant that is much better.

[2] Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary Version published 1913 by the C. & G. Merriam Co. Springfield, Mass. Under the direction of Noah Porter, D.D., LL.D.

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