“Jesus’ name wasn’t even mentioned!” I exclaimed in exasperation to a fellow pastor as we left the sanctuary.
We had attended what was advertised as a Christian worship service. Yet there wasn’t even a mention in passing of the name of Jesus, His title of Christ, Lord, or Savior.
It seems the event was intended to encourage and make one feel well about themself. It was a hype parade of activity seeking to keep the attendees awake and entertained. One would leave the service jazzed about how good of a person I am but with very little warmth towards the mercy and grace of God.
Was this a Christian worship service? I would argue no, there was nothing distinctly Christian about it.
Knowing What Is Right In Worship
How can we know what we practice in corporate worship is right? Simple. God tells us how we are to worship Him.
Jesus reveals this principle to us in Mark 7:6-8 when He rebukes the Pharisees for improperly worshipping Him:
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
Ouch. Yet the principle is clear from Jesus’ lips—the right worship of God comes from the command of God, not what we devise is the right way to worship. The Westminster Confession of Faith says it this way:
“The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is established by God himself. God’s revealed will so defines and outlines proper worship that neither the imaginations and devices of men nor the suggestions of Satan are to be followed. God is not to be worshiped under any visible representation or in any other way than that prescribed in Holy Scripture.” (WCF 21.1)
This quote is a commentary on Hebrews 12:28, which says to us, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”
What is “acceptable worship?” It’s that which Jesus pointed the Pharisees towards, it’s that which the WCF says we are to follow, it is, in short, that which God declares is right worship. Theologians refer to this as the Regulative Principle of Worship. That God regulates and tells us in His word what is acceptable worship. Or as the Heidelberg Catechism states, “To worship God truly, is to worship him in the manner which he himself has prescribed.”
Principles From Scripture On Right Worship
What then does God regulate as proper worship in His word? What is acceptable to Him?
We have multiple texts throughout God’s word which give us “principles” and descriptive elements for worship. These are by no means exhaustive, but helpful for us as the church today. Four principles for right worship:
The aim of worship is God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31)
The attitude of worship is reverence, fear of the Lord (Heb. 12:28)
The elements of worship are to be ordered (1 Cor. 14)
The stance of worship is truth-oriented (John 4:23-24)
The beauty of the Scriptures on these is that they act as a guide to the ethos of worship. These are some of the broad overarching principles for how God says we are to worship him. Aim. Attitude. Elements. And Stance.
But what about those elements, what is regulated as right in a worship service?
Specific Elements of Acceptable Worship
There are many places in Scripture where God commands and prescribes how we are to worship when the church gathers corporately. Here are five specific elements that are to be ordered in our services of worship:
The preaching of God’s word (2 Tim. 4:2)
The sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 11:23ff., Acts 2:38 and 42)
Corporate prayer (Phil 4:6, 1 Tim. 2:1)
The public reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13, Deut. 31:10ff.)
Singing praises to God (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19)
Certainly, the Christian church can agree that God has so declared and prescribed His people to worship Him using these elements. The forms, how each of these elements are conducted, differ from church to church, but the elements God declares are to be present in the body of Christ at worship.
How are these elements regularly present in your church?
A Failure To Worship
In light of all this, I go back to that church I attended where no mention of Jesus was made. And given the prescription from the Lord as to how we are to worship, it would seem that the church failed to worship rightly. There was nothing distinctly Christian about how they worshiped.
When a church fails to preach the word of God and chooses instead for pep-talks and Ted-talks devoid of the Gospel, the worship is unacceptable to the Lord.
Worship must be distinctly Christian, it must unmistakably have Christ at the center of all that it is about. After all, worship is not primarily about us, but about the praise of God alone. Don’t we want Him to be pleased by our worship? We do! But he’ll only be pleased if we listen to how He has commanded us to rightly worship Him.