Written by Jared Allen, FRC Elder
The word “worship” has undergone an unfortunate simplification. Today, the word often means merely music, but it is meant to convey the way in which Christians live their entire lives. Romans 12:1 says “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship,” and the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 1 follows up well with “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Our lives are meant to be lived coram deo, before the face of God. In terms of our weekly corporate worship Dr. Michael Horton, in his book A Better Way, writes “It is in [the context of Christ as our covenant head] that we talk about the ‘covenant renewal ceremony.’ Whenever we gather for public worship, it is because we have been summoned. That is what ‘church’ means: ekklesia, ‘called out.’”
This flattening of the meaning of the word worship has turned our corporate worship service from its historical, Reformational centering on the Word as a means of grace to one that is centered on music. Music has been understood as one of our responses to God’s saving actions, and the replacement of music over Word as a means of grace means that services now focus on our work over God’s. This change functionally shifts our Sunday services from worship to entertainment or therapy. The irony is that the more we say we are God-centered (largely through OUR exaltation of Him), the more we in reality become man-centered (by making God’s exaltation dependent upon our experiences). As Dr. Sinclair Ferguson writes “True worship, therefore, has its focus not on worship as such but on the triune Lord Himself.” Historically, the service has been more about God’s actions in initiating covenant relationship, giving us life, and nourishing us weekly with a service that reviews the covenant, kills us with the law, and brings us back to life with the gospel.
From Creation to Christ, God initiated relationship with His people through a covenant. The covenants in the Bible follow the form of an ancient Near Eastern treaty between a greater king (suzerain) and a lesser king (vassal). In similar fashion, God brought us these treaties as the great king, who sits enthroned in heaven. Covenants were ratified through a ceremony in which both kings would pass between severed halves of animals, signifying that the one who broke the covenant would be similarly killed. But God alone passed through the severed animal halves in the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 15, and Christ alone bore the punishment of breaking God’s covenant upon the cross. In both covenants, God alone bore the curse for not fulfilling the covenant. He brought us from death to life, through the proclamation of the Word, and, as in Romans 10 and Ezekiel 37, we merely hear the sound.
So how does God’s covenant affect our Sunday worship? We need a medium that matches the message. Biblically, the Word precedes one’s response to it. We must receive God’s gifts before we have anything to offer back to Him or to our neighbor. The entire worship service is primarily a service of the Word as a means of grace, nourishing and strengthening our faith. Since we were passive recipients of this life, grace, and faith in our salvation, our services also ought to be structured so that we are primarily recipients (of the Word). For this reason, the Reformation tradition weaves Scripture into every element of the worship service, with the proclamation of the Word as the central aspect.
The Second Helvetic Confession by Heinrich Bullinger states “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” Similarly, Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 65 states “It is through faith alone that we share in Christ and all his benefits: where then does that faith come from? The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.” No such declarations are made about music, as glorious as the sacred music has been over the centuries. The Protestants were conscientious about maximizing the presence and quantity of the Word in the service, to include the sacraments as the “visible word.” Following the covenant format, our elements flow from the Call to Worship (preamble) to the Confession (stipulations and negative sanctions) and Absolution to a proclamation of Christ and all His benefits in the Sermon and a Benediction (positive sanctions). The nourishing benefits of the Word are given to us objectively by the Spirit in virtue of God’s promise and often come in spite of our own feelings and experiences. Throughout, we respond in song, responsive readings, prayer, and giving. But, as in Nehemiah 8-9 and Colossians 3:16-17, the Word precedes our response to it. Only as we are filled by Christ can we respond. This view of objective spiritual nourishment via the Word directly clashes with much of contemporary evangelical theology. Dr. Horton writes “That’s why worship is dialogical: God speaks and we respond.” But if we expect God to speak to us in ways that are actually designed to be our speech back to God, we end up focusing on our words rather than God’s. Instead, we need to view Church as our weekly re-salinization plant, an inn for weary travelers, and a heavenly banquet with our King.