The gospel and worship
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
Apart from the gospel, worship is impossible. But thanks be to God. For through the blood of Jesus sinners can approach the throne of God with confidence
In his vision of heaven, John saw a great multitude of people joining with the heavenly creatures and angels in worshipping God (Revelation 6:9-17). Worship is therefore an indispensable Christian activity. For it will endure in the new heavens and the new earth, unlike a lot of other Christian activities that will cease. Since worship is such an important subject, it deserves a closer look. As Christians we must be clear about the nature of worship that pleases God. For worship to be acceptable and pleasing to God, it must be shaped and driven by the gospel. So what about the gospel makes worship possible?
Our sin is an obstacle to worship
Throughout the Old Testament we read that God is holy. Every time his people were to approach him they had to go thorough a rigorous process of consecration (Leviticus 11:44). Approaching God carelessly would result in death (Leviticus 15:2). When we turn to the New Testament God does not change. He remains the same holy God who requires those who come to him to be holy (1 Peter 1:16). For he cannot mix with sin. Given this reality, humanity finds itself in a hopeless state. We are unable to enjoy communion with the holy God because of sin.
In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul paints a very gloomy picture of humanity. All are separated from God by sin. This negative picture becomes starkest in Romans 3, “None is righteous, no, not even one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. that no one is righteous” (Romans 3:11). Both Jews and Gentiles have turned away from God. No one seeks him or does what is right. The verdict is damning and disturbing. It is in this dark place that the gospel shines. For it is the declaration of good news: sinful humanity can gain access to God through God’s gracious forgiveness.
Only the gospel makes worship possible
In Christ, God acted to make the sinful humanity righteous (Romans 3:21-26). This is the gospel message proclaimed throughout the New Testament. And at the heart of it Christ’s substitutionary death, satisfying the just wrath of God. This is how sinful men and women are brought in to a worshipping relationship with the holy God. Outside of the gospel there is no hope for sinful mankind to approach him. In 1 Peter 3:18, we are told, “Christ died for our sins to bring us to God.” Again in 1 Timothy 2:5, “There is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Because of Christ’s past work and through his ongoing mediation we can worship God. Apart from the gospel, worship is impossible. But thanks be to God. For through the blood of Jesus sinners can approach the throne of God with confidence (Hebrews 10:19-22). The gospel makes worship possible. Jesus said that no one can come to the Father unless they come through him (John 14:6). Therefore worship is a privilege and not a right. Behind any true worship of God is the truth that such worship would not be possible apart from his grace.
The gospel makes worship acceptable
But the gospel does not only make worship possible. It also makes worship acceptable. Acceptable worship in the Bible means approaching God on his terms. Any attempt to worship God in another way – based on our tradition, culture or personal preferences – is unacceptable worship. God could reject our worship for number of reasons.
In the Old Testament, some of the reasons God deemed worship unacceptable included unbelief, idolatry, disobedience and evil motives (see Jeremiah 7:21-26; 13:10; Exodus 30:9; 32:22-27). Jesus confirms this idea. In John 4:23-24 he said that God is looking for worshippers who will worship him in truth and in spirit. How can we do this? Well, the answer again lies in the gospel. In Romans 4 we are told that all who belong to Christ are given the Spirit. And in John 14 we learn that the Spirit is the “Spirit of truth”. So by drawing people to himself through the gospel, God gives them the Spirit. His work is to reveal and instil God’s truth, creating acceptable worshippers.
Without the work of Christ and the gift of the Spirit, worship remains unacceptable. For such worship is not empowered by God’s Spirit and it is not based on God’s truth, revealed in his Word. The ultimate factor for acceptable worship is therefore our union with Christ and our faith in him. Those who believe in the gospel are being built into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood eligible to offer acceptable sacrifices through Jesus (1 Peter 2:5).
The gospel makes worship sustainable
By this I mean we continue in worship because of the gospel truth. At the gospel’s core is access to acceptance by God because of God’s grace. No merit, achievement or effort earned us this privilege. Furthermore, we need the gospel for ongoing worship because of our continued disposition to sin. Although Christians are filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit we still sin. We often find ourselves worshipping God in ways and with motives that are inappropriate. Therefore it is the ongoing assurance of the gospel message that allows forgiven but imperfect sinners to continue in worship. For Christians know they are not accepted by their performance but because of Jesus’ work and the gift of the Spirit.
Jesus is at the heart of worship
The sacrificial system was at the heart of Old Testament worship. But in the New Testament, the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus becomes the centre. God has revealed himself fully through Jesus (Heb 1:1-2). On one level, Jesus is the object of our worship, while his work is grounds of all worship. God’s New Testament people worship Christ. For we have come know and access God through him. This revelation of God in the gospel stands at the heart of true Christian worship, also giving it its shape.
We can now conclude with some implications for the Christian life. One of the major implications is that Scripture should inform worship, both in private and public. Many people tend to separate the Word and worship. Some people go to one church for so-called “vibrant worship” and then to another for good teaching of the word. This point was made by Paul Baloche in the foreword to Worship Matters. But this dichotomy cannot exist. True and acceptable worship depends on the Word of God. So if we are to worship him on his terms we must prioritise the Word. Scripture must shape our liturgy, enrich our songs and drive appropriate emotions.
We have seen that the gospel both enables and shapes worship. Therefore the liturgy or order of service when the church is gathered should reflect Scripture. Rather than placing different components of the service randomly, the order of service should take people through a gospel journey. We can learn this from how Paul arranges his letters, especially Romans. He first outlines our sinful state, then he moves on to show God’s gracious rescue through the gospel, and he ends the book with practical imperatives.
Beyond the shape of our church services, our understanding of worship and the gospel should change the way we speak about worship, especially those who lead. In some circles, it is common to hear, “We are now entering a time of worship,” referring to singing. While singing is definitely one avenue for worshipping God, this language implies that we were not worshipping before. This does not foster a biblical understanding of worship. It may be more helpful to use language like, “Let us continue to worship through: giving…singing together…hearing the word preached.”
The relationship between the gospel and worship in the New Testament is crucial. We have seen how the gospel enables and norms acceptable worship. Because our worship is grounded in grace we know that paradoxically God sustains us as we worship him. Importantly, worship is not restricted to the activities we do during the Sunday gathering. Worship involves all of life as we seek to live in light of the truth of the gospel. Since God has revealed himself in his Word, true worship can only be expressed when we allow the Word to shape its form and content. So, in other words, we can say that New Testament worship is gospel inspired; Christ centred; Spirit sustained; and cross focused. The gospel makes worship possible.