Christian Worship: Responding to the Story of God

Just as the narrative of Scripture presents the character and mission of the God as the heart of Christian worship, it also presents the human role and response to God in worship throughout this story. As the catechism demonstrates, within Christian worship and glorification of God, there is a human-fulfilling dimension when worship of the Creator is faithfully executed. Worship may be God-centered and God-focused, but that does not mean that the worshipers are left unchanged or immovable from the worship of their Creator. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:1-2, the worship of the Church re-interprets the Old Testament sacrificial worship of God’s people, demanding that Christian worship requires the whole of the individual placed upon the altar in worship to God, rather than an animal, prayers, or even songs. Contemporary Christian culture, especially Protestant, “grace-oriented” culture, has a tendency to consider worship in the Church age as easier than under the law in the Old Testament. The apostle Paul, however, presents the Church with a much more serious and demanding form of worship now that the blood of animals is no longer necessary. “It’s not enough to offer animals on the altar anymore,” it is as if he is saying. “Offer yourself.” Christian worship in light of Christ’s work demands all and encompasses all of life. Eugene Peterson captures the imagery and scope of Paul’s statement well in his paraphrase of Scripture, The Message: “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering” (Rom. 12:1, MSG). The work of Christ has freed the worship of God’s people from the animal sacrifices and priestly system of the Old Testament, but it demands from them submission, service, and praise.

Submission

Worship always begins with submission. To worship something is to place it in high rank of importance in one’s life and to follow the teachings or lifestyle of that object or person in one’s life, to submit to the will and desires of the object of worship. In Christian worship, submission is the starting point for worship. The call of God upon the lives of humans is to submit to His will, namely, to accept His forgiveness and acknowledge the work of Christ alone for redemption and a restored relationship with God. This is the will of God for all people and is the first demand placed upon those who would be His worshipers. Individuals respond in submission to God’s redemptive initiative. It is for this reason that the worship of the Church is only for believers; those who are not placing themselves in submission to the call of God to follow Christ are not in proper standing before God to offer up words of praise (1 Cor. 12:3). “The worship lifestyle is impossible without being born again. If there is no regeneration, there will be no worship of the living God. There will be worship, but this worship will not be to the God of the Bible” (Navarro 55). Scripture presents the human soul as dead and lifeless without the work of God; only through the regeneration and life-giving work of Christ can the spirit be raised and inspired to worship God. Submitting to the call to salvation places individuals in a proper standing before God and ready to worship Him for His grace given through the work of Christ as experienced by the redeemed.

A New Way of Life

When an individual submits to the call to salvation, they are not merely assenting to a statement of beliefs; rather, they are adopted a new way of life. Biblical worship is not merely concerned with the words and songs that come from the believer’s mouth; the whole person – actions, thoughts, attitudes and choices – is encompassed in the biblical idea of worship. It is for this reason that contemporary definitions of worship as musical performance or “the part of the service before the sermon” are lacking in their understanding of the all-encompassing nature of worship. When the words that are being sung and the hands that are being raised during the worship of the Church are not matched by the lives and actions of believers outside the walls of the Church, the words of the Old Testament prophets echoed by Christ ring a true judgment: “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6, Matt. 9:13).

Christian worship is worship in action. The heritage of the Christian faith in the Old Testament points to the fact that the God of the Bible has always required worship to be all-encompassing, not mere ritual but hearts inclined toward God and displayed in love for God and others. Even as God required sacrifices and festivals from His people, He consistently reminded them that their true worship was not demonstrated in how consistent they were in offering rams, but in how consistently they lived out a love for God and for neighbors (Deut. 6:4-6). Throughout the Old Testament, as the Levitical priesthood led the people of Israel in worship, the worship of the people is referred to in terms of action: “shachah,” to prostrate oneself (Is. 66:23); “yadah,” to worship with extended hands (1 Chr. 16:34); “barak,” to kneel (Ps. 34:1). God desires active worship; the words spoken or sung in praise to God are tied to the actions and choices of worshipers.

Worship in Action

Additionally, when Israel would forget the active dimension of their faith, turning to either ritual or false gods, the prophets of God would condemn the very rituals that had been commanded by God, for their disinterested worship was loathsome to God. The prophet Amos condemned the praise of God’s people because of their blatant sin and rebellion toward God, even though they were keeping the feasts and sacrifices of praise: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24). God has always desired this active worship, as the apostle Paul had to remind New Testament believers who were neglecting the active pursuit of right living that is part of Christian worship (Col. 3). True worship of God demands a life that is lived in pursuit of holiness and in love for God demonstrated in acting on behalf of God in the world.

Local church worship informed by an understanding of worship as active will encourage its people as much to service as to singing. For as much as contemporary Christian culture emphasizes the singing of God’s praise, churches must also encourage and foster an understanding of worship as active service to God’s glory. This demands that local churches be an active force for redemption in the name of Christ within their local communities, informing their congregants of the needs of those in and out of the church body and encouraging them to creatively meet those needs in the name of Christ. There is a tendency within some Protestant and evangelical circles to emphasize the personal, redemptive dimension of salvation and de-emphasize the good works that are the outpouring of salvation in worship to God (Matt. 5:16, Eph. 2:10). The instruction and emphasis of the local church upon the service aspect of worship will determine how effective the service of worship of the local believers will be.

When individuals submit to the call of God to salvation and live lives that demonstrate true, self-emptying worship in action, then the songs that are sung and the words that are preached have merit as expressions of true worship to the Triune God. Christian worship declares the reign of God in the lives of believers and in the world as a whole; it proclaims the name of the Triune God as sovereign and holy, worthy of worship. It is for this reason that the previously mentioned aspects of worship – submission to God and an active worship – must come first in Christian worship. To declare that God is sovereign in the world and holy and deserving of worship, those who are declaring such statements must be showing that in the way that they live their belief in these statements out. Anything less shows that either the message proclaimed is not important enough to change lives or those who claim such a message demonstrate hypocrisy in their beliefs. Biblical worship demonstrates as it proclaims the name of God in the world.

 

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